The ARA Steps Up

East Austin Redevelopment Money Approved

by Alex de Marban

Councilmember Brigid

Shea coined it the "week from hell." Ninety-nine items and millions of dollars on the agenda. Phones to answer, meetings to attend, aspirin to pop. A whirlwind of energy culminating last Thursday in... one very orderly council meeting, executed with swift and surprising grace.

Weighing heaviest on the hefty agenda? Eric Mitchell's estimated $100 million Austin Redevelopment Authority (ARA) initiative to bring investment and commerce to the nearly inert economy along East 11th and 12th Streets. To jumpstart his initiative, Mitchell asked the council last Thursday to accept a $9 million federal housing loan, and to approve a board he brought together to implement the funds. He thinks the $9 million would be sufficient to acquire and raze a five-block swatch of mostly boarded-up properties on East 11th and 12th, between I-35 and Navasota, and build a 40,000 square foot, city-owned office building (location undetermined). The land, and perhaps the building, could then be sold after property values rise, creating an increasing revenue source that could extend the redevelopment seven blocks further east down 12th Street, to Poquito Street. There are currently no requests for additional public funds, but since Mitchell calculates the entire price tag at $100 million, more public funding is possible.

Many say Mitchell's plan could be the biggest thing to happen to Central East Austin since desegregation, which paved the way for a suburban exodus of the wealthiest black residents and solidified East Austin as a place of unemployment and poverty. Now coming full circle to reclaim what they consider their birthright, scores of those former East Austin residents-turned-suburbanites packed like an army into the standing-room only council chambers last Thursday, to weigh in their support for the reincarnation of the once-active E. 11th and 12th Street commercial corridors. Some are area business- and land-owners who stand to make a profit from the ARA deal, but most others just want the area they still occasion for church or social events to be restored to its original vigor.

They seemed to accept Mitchell's promises that the lack of follow-through and mismanaged funding that were the demise of past urban renewal projects would be avoided this time, and that the rampant blight in the area would be erased. But representatives from the Blackshear, Guadalupe, Anderson, Swede Hill, Chestnut Hill, and Kealing neighborhoods, who had recently assembled the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN) in opposition to Mitchell's plan, weren't as willing to make that leap of faith. Many members of OCEAN are the old guard of African-Americans who never left East Austin, plus a mixture of Hispanics and whites, mostly from the Guadalupe neighborhood, all of whom attested support for commercial development but argued that the implementation process is flawed. Particularly in light of the lack of neighborhood representation on a 14-member private corporation charged with implementation of the plan, called the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), whose membership includes primarily bankers, developers, Chamber representatives, and area business owners. Only one position on the board had been filled by a neighborhood representative. Mitchell, who helped bring the board together, asked the council last Thursday to enter into negotiations with the ARA board for a redevelopment contract. Area residents maintain that no one on the board lives in the redevelopment area, and that without neighborhood representation on the ARA board, a misguided plan could easily turn Central East Austin into the foothills of downtown, leaving the area without staple businesses like grocery stores and dry cleaners. They also stated that because the redevelopment plan may exercise eminent domain to force resistant landowners to sell, their inclusion could help ensure cautious use of that power. It should be noted that by state law, the ARA board can recommend the use of eminent domain, but only the Urban Renewal Agency (URA) - a volunteer five-member board to be chosen by Mayor Bruce Todd - has the power to enforce it.

For the most part, the public hearing was toned down, a rarity at council chambers for an issue so passionate and a crowd so enormous. Maybe that's because the numbers spoke for themselves. Of the 200-plus people who showed up to speak, supporters outnumbered detractors almost 3-1, and the majority of speakers were not from East Austin, substantiating views that Mitchell's ascendancy to the Place 6 council seat meant that the locus of Eastside politics has moved far outside that area.

That's because Mitchell's support in the 1994 council race came from anywhere but East Austin. Highlights of that race were relived momentarily on Thursday. The hands-down winner of the East Austin precincts in 1994, Ron Davis, squared off against Mitchell in a point-counterpoint that many audience members thought Mitchell lost. Davis, still a grassroots activist and an OCEAN member, framed his argument as a "neighborhood rights issue." Davis simply and firmly maintained that the numerous neighborhoods abutting the redevelopment should participate in its implementation. Mitchell responded with a perplexing deduction that rebuilding the two most-traveled streets in Central East Austin "does not affect [those neighborhoods]."

Such boldly exclusionary comments from Mitchell have been par for the course, say some neighborhood residents. Father Bill Elliot of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Guadalupe neighborhood, found out two weeks ago that he had not been invited to a November 10 meeting of Eastside pastors to discuss Mitchell's redevelopment plan. Elliot, wondering why the head of "the city's largest Hispanic church was not invited to the process of development in East Austin," said that he called Donetta McCall, Mitchell's aide, who replied, with acrimony, "Guadalupe is not invited." McCall refused to comment to this reporter, but at the November 14 housing subcommittee meeting, Mitchell clarified her statement. Responding to area resident Emma Woodward, Mitchell said the pastors' meeting was a black gathering and Elliot, who is white, didn't meet the criteria. Moreover, Mitchell told Woodward and the rest of the audience that it was the pastors, not he, who had called the meeting.

Actually, though, it was Mitchell who organized the meeting. In a November 6 invitation asking 10 area pastors to attend the session, Mitchell solicited the aid of what Austin writer Lucius Lomax once called the "consciousness of the community." The invitation began, "I need your help and I need it now!" Mitchell wrote that he was "compelled to have a thousand people from East Austin" at the November 16 council meeting, and that he needed "help to get the people there." He finished with: "Your active participation is needed. I can't do this without you."

Mitchell, looking for unconditional support, knew he wouldn't get it from anyone in Guadalupe, one of the most politically active neighborhoods in the city. In fact, at the public hearing, Mitchell said that Guadalupe "has been at odds with me ever since I took office." But despite his particular enmity for Guadalupe and his distaste for including the other neighborhoods, OCEAN had been guaranteed membership on the ARA board by the end of Thursday's meeting. That's because in backroom negotiations, according to Gus Garcia and other sources, Garcia and the mayor carried out OCEAN's wishes and asked members of the ARA board, like ARA president Herman Lessard, to add four neighborhood representatives, bringing ARA membership to 18.

The council also had the option, and probably enough votes, to scrap the ARA board altogether, replacing it with a 15-member corporate board suggested by Nofziger. Nofziger's suggestion would have allowed Mitchell to appoint three members, with each remaining councilmember appointing two. It was hardly discussed.

The ARA board had agreed to include the neighborhood representatives, so at 10pm, with more than 140 speakers remaining, Mitchell ended the debate by calling the vote on the loan and on adding the four additional neighborhood representatives.

The amended ARA board passed the muster of all councilmembers except the lame-duck Max Nofziger, who stomped out of the chambers before the vote. According to numerous sources, Nofziger was frustrated that the council would accept Mitchell's board in its near-entirety. Perhaps he's grateful to have missed a schmaltzy display by Mitchell's pal Ronney Reynolds. After the vote, the alleged mayoral aspirant thanked Mitchell for going after the $9 million loan. He then said he wore many different hats as a councilmember, and before a standing ovation donned a black cowboy hat to show unity with the primarily black crowd.

As for the new ARA board, it may present a contract to the council as early as January. The bone of contention then will likely be whether the board should be allowed to create the master plan for the redevelopment. City housing staff say the creation of the master plan is the most important aspect of the redevelopment and will provide the best opportunity for public participation. But the already-incorporated ARA board is already working on at least one master plan, and possibly others, says board member Leonard Mann. And it's that stratagem of working outside the public eye that the four neighborhood boardmembers hope to prevent, says OCEAN member and probable ARA boardmember Portia Watson.

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In other action, a united council finally annexed the 337-acre Texas Oaks Subdivision along William Cannon Road. The decision came after a public hearing last week at a Texas Oaks neighborhood church. Unlike the previous hearing in September, which was called by the councilmembers themselves, Reynolds was not the lone city politician in attendance. This time, Jackie Goodman, Mitchell, Garcia, the mayor, and a representative of Reynolds' office attended. Nofziger and Shea did not.

The council also unanimously passed the mayor's gun ordinance, which restricts the carrying of firearms on city property - most importantly, city parks. The camping ordinance was passed 4-2-1 (Goodman and Shea voted no, Mitchell abstained) on its second reading. No date has been set for the third reading.

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This week in council: Turkey dreams and no council meeting.

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