Steering Urban Renewal
Housing Director Bill Cook
As administrator of what many are calling the city's latest urban renewal proposal, Bill Cook is facing one of Austin's most crucial tasks at hand: the betterment of Central East Austin. An immense challenge in the best of times; and now, with Cook embroiled in a politically charged battle over control of the project, the task has become that much more difficult. In his role as head of the Neighborhood Housing and Conservation Office (NHCO), Cook is caught in a nasty crossfire between Councilmembers Brigid Shea and Eric Mitchell, both of whom are closely monitoring Cook's guidance of Mitchell's $100 million project to redevelop East 11th and 12th Streets, called the Austin Redevelopment Authority (ARA). Recently, Mitchell criticized Cook for recommending a development corporation comprised partly of Central East Austin neighborhood representatives -- representatives whom Mitchell fears may want to derail the project. Since Mitchell leveled criticism at him, Cook has changed his tune, claiming that it doesn't matter whether residents get a voice on the board because they'll get their input during the design of the master plan. That makes Shea very, very angry. She accuses Cook of kneeling when Mitchell says kneel, and has promised to hold Cook personally responsible if his kaleidoscopic principles cause a "Jihad in East Austin."
Cook is on the hot seat, and from where he's sitting, there's no easy solution. The following are excerpts from a question and answer session with Cook.
Austin Chronicle: Can you tell us your background in governmental housing and redevelopment?
Bill Cook: I've been in housing and economic development since 1974. My position before coming to Austin was director of a housing department in Schenectady, New York, about 70,000 people... [In Schenectady] we had a very strong downtown revitalization program that involved the re-use of some vacant buildings for conversion to housing. We were quite successful... [I also] was secretary of Urban Renewal Agency in that city.
AC: When and why did you come to Austin?
BC: I came to Austin in 1985... to manage the city's building and zoning code enforcement... and then I was asked to move over [in 1989] and work with the city's Community Development Block Grant program as an operations manager. [Then-Housing Director] Gene Watkins left in November of 1993, and then I was acting director until the spring when they filled the position, and I was fortunate to get that position.
AC: What do you see for East Austin as far as redevelopment goes?
BC: Well, I think our number-one challenge is East 11th Street. And I think the section 108 loan program [$9 million federal housing loan for ARA] and the [$900,000] line item we put in the CDBG budget for next year for East 11th Street Revitalization are just starting points. Probably as important as actually building the buildings is projecting the confidence to the investment community in the private sector. That the community, the city, is committed to this redevelopment and has the wherewithal to see that it happens. That doesn't necessarily mean that all the dollars to do that redevelopment have to come through the city, but I think equally important is the commitment by the city to the urban renewal process and the powers that come with it to ensure that eventually, within a reasonable period of time, all of that property will be available for redevelopment or rehabilitation.
AC: Is the ARA...urban renewal?
BC: I think it's more accurate to say urban renewal is one tool that this city can use to have a successful redevelopment program.
AC: So can you call the ARA urban renewal?
BC: No, I think that's too broad, just a personal opinion. Because it's conceivable that [with ARA] there will be private sales and transactions and that urban renewal powers with eminent domain will be a minor part. Probably the two most important characteristics of the urban renewal powers is the plan, in the first place, and then, if necessary, and only if necessary, the authority and the power to take property that private owners are not willing to rehabilitate or improve. Those are the two main functions of urban renewal.
AC: So in that way, the ARA will be similar to urban renewal.
BC: Okay, I'll go with you on that.
AC:How will the ARA be different from past urban renewal attempts?
BC: I think for a couple of reasons. First of all, over time the law has changed. I think there's much more opportunity for community involvement than there was in the earlier days of urban renewal. I think the planning commission looks at it, the urban renewal agency recommends it, the council has to hold public hearings to approve it. In Austin I think one of the more important differences from the past is that I think this is the first use of urban renewal in a project that involves economic redevelopment. I think the earlier ones created public facilities and public improvements.
AC: The lack of neighborhood input is becoming a problem with the ARA and I think the NHCO tried to prevent that by originally recommending a non-profit developer board with some of the neighborhood groups included, like the Guadalupe neighborhood. But that recommendation was not made at the last housing subcommittee meeting where the ARA was discussed, and neighborhood representatives in East Austin think Eric Mitchell's private, non-profit corporation, which they say has no community inclusion, will become the developer. So is the public non-profit still staff's recommendation, and will it be presented at the November 16 council meeting?
BC: Well, you've got to remember that originally the [development board] that we were talking about at that subcommittee meeting was an entity that would guide the planning process and then become the developer, serving two roles. Now, the discussion has shifted to two separate processes. One is the master plan and the second is the developer. Given a two-step process, our focus is how the community is involved in the master plan, which includes all the development restrictions to ensure that the projects that are built will be built to the plan. Each time a developer makes a proposal to build a building in that area, it will actually have to be reviewed in relationship to those development standards and has to be recommended by the planning commission and by the urban renewal agency before developments are done if they're inside an urban renewal area. So the structure is there, and the protection is there, if the plan is developed with the community's input. So yes and no. We've shifted to a two-step process rather than a one-step process.
AC: Does the expansion in thinking have anything to do with the fact that Eric Mitchell is so fervently pushing for his private non-profit?
BC: Well, whoever the developer is, should also have experience and capital.
AC: Right, so in the sense that Mitchell has the idea that capital and experience are important, then is that shift in thinking a result of pressure from Mitchell?
BC: We're not chasing or following, we're just trying to lay out what [the council] needs to be looking for.
AC: Mitchell has said none of the buildings will be patched up or renovated and that they'll be "wiped out" and replaced with entirely new structures. Have we done an assessment to see if that's what those buildings, some of which are historical landmarks, need? An assessment to see that they're unsafe and that it's not more economically and historically wise to try to refurbish them?
BC: No, I wouldn't say that we've looked at every building, but I would point out that under the law we have to make that determination on a building-by-building basis.
AC: So it may not be a correct assumption that the whole area can be wiped out?
BC: We have to evaluate the buildings... Certainly, if you picture [East] 11th Street it's not inaccurate to picture a lot of new construction, 100%, 90%, 75%, that's probably debatable, but we'll wait until the plan gets completed. Now let me ask you something. I want to go back to your question about how we originally recommended a public non-profit with community input and now we have what you were calling a second recommendation. I guess I wasn't sure what the significance of your question was. I was hoping you understood there are multiple ways to do this. Initially there was talk about one entity doing the whole thing and that was where we talked about how it should represent the community and how it should be a public non-profit. Now with further discussion, perhaps in a hope to get people to see the distinction between a plan and the developer and maybe to get some kind of a middle-ground compromise agreement that if we have a good solid plan with the community involved in it there could be a whole array of entities that come in and compete to be the builders and the developers of the property. And that developer would not be critical as long as you had that plan in place and the community supported the plan.
AC: And you don't want the question of who the developer is to jeopardize the process?
BC: I think we need to keep in front of us the need for the redevelopment and keep our eye on that and not get tied up in the formation of who will be the developer. That will come naturally as the plan develops and we begin to solicit proposals.
AC: But aren't the devoloper and the plan tied together in the end result of the ARA?
BC: Well then, what do we come down to? What's the end result? No redevelopment? That's absolutely not what we want.