Revitalization: Risking Good Cents?

While city housing officials have no local model for their proposed commercial revitalization effort -- called the Austin Redevelopment Authority (ARA) -- one near-complete Eastside project may offer insight into how they will manage the ARA. Namely, the East Austin Development Corporation's (EADC) construction of a two-story office building at 1007 East 11th Street.

Like the ARA, the project depended on city involvement. On one hand, that means that when the doors open on January 1, Central East Austin gets its "first building in at least a decade," says Van Johnson, EADC director. On the other hand, it may mean overreaching and questionable financial commitments for the city.

To give the project wings, the city's Neighborhood Housing and Conservation Office (NHCO) committed to renting two-thirds of the office space when the project began in 1991. The act of goodwill won the EADC -- the development arm of the Ebenezer Baptist Church -- a key development loan from Texas Commerce Bank. (The city, through its Neighborhood Commercial Management Program, also loaned the project $480,000 in 1991.) But the NHCO, perhaps in its haste to participate in the groundbreaking project, didn't determine a use for the space.

Tim Stack, a neighborhood development manager for the NHCO, says the department may house a division there. Or it may create a small business incubator with the Austin Community College. Or, the NHCO "can sublet it, for a profit even," says Stack.

If the city decides to sublet, however, it may have difficulty attracting tenants. That's because, as part of Eric Mitchell's proposed ARA redevelopment plan, the city will build cheaper commercial space within walking distance, on either East 11th or 12th streets. According to the city's application for a $9 million federal housing loan, which will pay for the construction of the city's commercial building, rental space will cost 80cents per square foot per month. Meanwhile, the city will rent office space at the EADC building for 25% more than that, at $72,000 a year, or $1 per square foot per month.

But perhaps, as Councilmember Mitchell says, the success of revitalizing East Austin shouldn't be measured in dollars and cents. According to EADC's Johnson, the project is a complete success. The first major investment into the heart of Central East Austin in some time has already acquired its cinderblock-brick facade, and is now awaiting finishing details. It stands alone, for now, in all its commercial glory, with only the vacant Bennett mall tract on the west, Ebenezer Baptist Church to the south, and residences to the north and east. The 9,000-square-foot office building will house a law firm, a construction company, and the EADC offices.

"It's 100% leased," says Johnson. "We promoted

it as downtown, but without all the problems of downtown. People recognized it as a spot with a lot of potential. It's close to downtown, I-35, and we have adequate parking on both lots." He adds that "It was kind of risky, but it's taking off. Someone had to take that risk." -- A.M.

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