Urban Removal?

East 11th and 12th Get Plowed

by Alex de Marban

On October 13, Patti Burditt, a legally disabled tenant of a slightly run-down house in Central East Austin, got a phone call that would terrify some of her neighbors. The person on the other end of the line, who identified herself as a city official named Kathy Meyers, informed Burditt that her rental house was targeted for demolition. To pay relocation expenses, Burditt recalls, the woman said the city would offer $484 if she left by the New Year. Rather than fear, all Burditt could feel was anger. "I told her I couldn't move. I can't afford to live anywhere else," says Burditt, who immediately called her landlord and received assurance that a sale of the house was not pending. Moreover, the city's housing and planning department officials deny attempts to evict Burditt, and besides, the city doesn't employ a Kathy Meyers.

Still, Burditt is steeling herself for the worst, and she swears that "ain't nobody gonna move me but God."

That is, unless Councilmember Eric Mitchell has his way. Burditt's home, at the corner of East 12th and Navasota, is directly in the path of his dream to "wipe out" and redevelop East 11th and 12th Streets, a dream that reaches zero hour today, Thursday, November 16. In fact, beginning at 6:30pm, in what promises to be the ultimate in democratic spectacle, scores of Austinites both for and against Mitchell's plan are expected to level all their persuasive fervor at a council that will negotiate the fate of the city's most traditionally depressed area of town.

On the table, among other items, is a measure to accept a $9 million federal housing loan. It would pay for the first part of the Austin Redevelopment Authority (ARA) plan, which calls for the acquisition and demolition of the property along 11th and 12th, between I-35 and Navasota, as well as the construction of a 40,000 square-foot office building, at a location yet to be determined. The office building will convey the message that successful investment can occur in the area, and will spur other investors to take advantage of the neighborhood's proximity to downtown, say city housing officials. Eventually, as the plan generates revenue from office rentals and the sale of acquired land, the second half of the ARA plan will commence with the redevelopment of 12th Street further east to Poquito. Although the initial investment by the city is $9 million, Mitchell has said the total investment, both public and private, could be as high as $100 million as properties are bought and sold. What portion of the $100 million will be the taxpayers' responsibility is as yet unknown, but the idea is that Austin residents will invest in East Austin by purchasing properties -- the city expects to sell those properties for a profit as area appraisals rise.

For the most part, Central East Austin residents badly want the loan. But controversy has arisen over the ARA's proposed use of eminent domain -- the city's ability to take land at will, at a price that sometimes is only a fraction of the market value. Another bone of contention is the lack of neighborhood representation on a development corporation -- also called the ARA, which stands for the Austin Revitalization Authority -- run by a 13-member board brought together by Mitchell. The Place 6 councilmember would like his ARA board to acquire the land, as well as design and carry out a master plan for the area. He will ask the council to accept his corporation at today's council meeting.

And yet another board comes into play. If the city uses eminent domain to force homeowners to sell their property, that process, under state law, must be carried out by an entity called the Urban Renewal Agency (URA), a five-member board appointed by the mayor.

The ARA's supporters, many of whom admit they'll finally be able to sell undesirable land along the once-bustling commercial corridors -- now mostly a row of boarded-up buildings and dilapidated houses -- contend that the residents' arguments are minor sticking points that will slow down positive change. Besides, something is better than the traditional nothing, they say. "The way I look at it, 11th and 12th streets are already at the bottom," says Ben Wash, the owner of Ben's Barbeque on East12th Street. "The only way you can go is up."

But at what price? Many in East Austin who have lived through other redevelopment plans say they fear that the ARA plan, with its power of eminent domain and lack of neighborhood inclusion, reeks of earlier, failed attempts at what residents regretfully dub "urban removal." And all that is, they say, is an effort to improve a neighborhood by evicting the poorest residents. Needless to say, area residents are taking no chances.

In a small conference hall at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at East Ninth and Lydia, about 60 Eastside residents, Burditt included, gathered last Friday to strategize a grassroots resistance to the ARA as it is planned. Leaders from five of six neighborhoods near the ARA's boundaries -- Blackshear/Prospect Hill, Chestnut Hill, Kealing, Guadalupe, and Swede Hill -- agreed to combine their strengths and form OCEAN (The Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods). The group is being incorporated and will serve as a counter-proposal to Mitchell's proposed redevelopment corporation. The neighborhood leaders also agreed to send to the council a petition of approximately 1,000 Central Eastside residents who oppose the use of eminent domain.

One of those leaders is Ora Nobles, the outspoken chair of the Blackshear/Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association and owner of the 38-year-old Rosewood Barbecue eaterie, one of Central East Austin's few surviving businesses. Nobles, who has opposed more than three decades of sporadic redevelopment efforts, told the black, white, and hispanic residents gathered at the church that eminent domain "is an ugly, ugly thing. People lost their mind worrying about it. One old lady at the corner of Seventh and Comal had a heart attack. Her daughter and grand-daughter said she was worrying and worrying."

Nobles herself has lived through the urban renewal of her neighborhood, just east of the ARA's proposed redevelopment area, in the early 1980s. "They came to Blackshear and bulldozed the people out and didn't give them a fair price for their property. Most everybody who've lived there in the past 100 years is gone. Urban renewal has done nothing but get people. It's been no help to East Austin. If it has, I want to see it."

The city has spent more than $20 million on urban renewal since 1959, but the problems in Central East Austin have never left. Unemployment is as high as 15% in some parts, and the crime rate is one of the highest in Austin. Some East Austin residents contend, ironically, that urban renewal is largely to blame since numerous structures were demolished but not replaced whenever the economy bottomed out, or the federal loans and grants ran out. In fact, urban renewal has made the city the largest landowner in the ARA area -- the city owns more than 25% of East 11th street -- but the lack of follow-through has left many lots and buildings vacant; a perfect backdrop for the nightly scenes of prostitution, drug-use, and at times, violence.

Supporters of the ARA redevelopment, whose numbers reached at least 150 at an Eastside meeting held by Mitchell on October 24, are primarily business- and landowners on East 11th and 12th Streets, and ex-residents who have since moved on to safer neighborhoods and better schools. They, too, have lived through past urban renewal efforts, and agree that they've been little help, but insist that this time things will be different. "The difference is now we're talking about economical growth," not residential growth, says Leonard Mann, the owner of Minnie's Hair Salon, a mainstay on East 12th for 15 years.

Like Mann, a number of the area landowners admit they want a deal out of the redevelopment. "I'm in trouble with a commercial piece of property on 12th Street. I need some help," says Willie Mae Kirk, a childhood resident of Central East Austin who has since moved out. Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, who also supports Mitchell's plan, says he owns about six houses in the commercial corridors to be redeveloped. He wants to "get some kind of business going in East Austin" as a result of the ARA.

Mann, a member of Mitchell's proposed board, says he understands residents' concerns about eminent domain, but, he asserts, the ARA area includes only a few homes on East 11th and 12th, and does not encroach into the more residential neighborhoods. The residential parts "are areas we're not going to touch anyway." Besides, adds Mann, Mitchell's development board will likely allow the creation of a neighborhood advisory committee. Mann says that will ensure area residents a voice about the type and location of businesses in the master plan, as well as whether the URA will have to be called in to use eminent domain.

The members of the newly formed OCEAN, however, doubt that Mitchell's development board will target only East 11th and 12th Streets. The board's articles of incorporation, dated October 4, 1995, say its purview includes areas within East 11th and 12th Streets. And Mitchell has stated that once those two streets are completed, the ARA, with self-generating revenue from property sales, can move on to other areas. With so much at stake, residents say, only neighborhood representation on the main ARA development board itself will satisfy them; they say membership on an advisory committee would be a token gesture offering no real power.

Mitchell refuses to speak to the Chronicle, but he responded to neighborhood concerns at his Eastside meeting, saying that the ARA board does include four area representatives. Two of the boardmembers, Mann and Oliver Street, own property in the ARA area. Of course, OCEAN members say there's little doubt where Mann and Street will stand since, under Mitchell's plan, they'll get to acquire and redevelop their own land. At the meeting, Mitchell added that two others, the Reverends Marvin Griffin and Leo Griffin (not related), are from East Austin churches. The problem, say the some residents, is that no one on the board lives within three miles of the area to be redeveloped.

"Not a one of them lives in East Austin," complains Emma Woodward, a San Bernard Street resident who has lived in the area for more than half a century.

This, despite an August 2 memo from city staff recommending that any ARA development corporation include area neighborhood representatives. Some city councilmembers immediately embraced that recommendation, but Mitchell had other ideas. Within a month, he introduced his development corporation. Simultaneously, in a contradictory rewrite of its earlier suggestions, staff aligned itself with Mitchell. Bill Cook, the city's housing department director, now says that neighborhood input should come during the creation of a master design plan, not the actual development (see interview). That's because, he says, the scope and type of development will be defined within that master plan; everything afterwards is just carrying out orders.

Councilmember Brigid Shea blames the staff's reversal on Mitchell's insistence that the ARA follow his rules, while Gus Garcia said staff just wanted to avoid controversy. "I think staff is trying to stay out of it."

Still, the recent activism of OCEAN will likely pay off. Already, five councilmembers or their aides have come out publicly in favor of neighborhood representation on the ARA development board, meaning that Mitchell's board will probably be amended or discarded altogether. Also, the council likely won't allow Mitchell's board to design a master plan, but instead will set up safeguards so the neighborhoods are included in the design process. That's good news for OCEAN and the steadfast Burditt, all of whom say they won't be moved.

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