The ARA Clubhouse

Mitchell's Very Exclusive Board

by Audrey Duff

Despite winning the battle last month to force the board of the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) to add representatives from the Eastside neighborhoods affected by the proposed redevelopment of E. 11th and 12th Streets, Eastside residents grumbled at last week's council meeting that the war for inclusion is far from over. Since November 16, when the city council granted participation of four members of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN) on the 15-member ARA, the board has held meetings without notifying the four representatives, says Phillip Poplin, a pro bono lawyer for OCEAN. "It's very disheartening that that kind of exclusion is still going on," Poplin says.

OCEAN member Mary Kimbles, who is one of the four neighborhood reps, says that she knows of at least one ARA meeting from which the neighborhoods were shut out. On December 6, she says, she happened to ask Leonard Mann (owner of Minnie's Beauty Shop and ARA board member) where he was headed that afternoon and he informed her he was on his way to an ARA board meeting. "I looked at him and said, `Did you contact any of [the four OCEAN neighborhood reps]?'" she recalls. "And he just said, `I don't know.'"

"They don't want us there," Kimbles adds. "but we are not going away."

Kimbles says she and the other four OCEAN members on the ARA board (who represent the neighborhoods of Robertson Hill, Guadalupe, Blackshear, and Chestnut Hill), simply want to have a say in the ARA planning process. The ARA proposal was created by Councilmember Eric Mitchell, whose vision is to bring investment and commerce to E. 11th and 12th streets by using
$9 million in federal loan monies to acquire properties in the area, raze the buildings on those properties, and then construct mostly commercial offices and stores on the land, and perhaps resell either the land or the buildings after property values have risen. The sole developer will be Mitchell's ARA. The incorporated non-profit board that will direct the Authority was handpicked by Mitchell, and his choices, critics have complained, are sorely lacking in neighborhood representatives. The board, they say, is stacked with bankers, developers, chamber representatives, and area business owners.

"This whole planning process is so corrupt already, I don't see how the four neighborhood people can hope to affect anything," says Mark Rogers, a board member of the Guadalupe Association for Improved Neighborhoods (GAIN). Poplin, OCEAN's legal counsel, agrees, pointing out that the authority's by-laws, created long before the neighborhood reps were appointed, allow the board to award consulting contracts to its own members. In addition, the authority can request $97,000 in city funds for consulting fees, contracts which members can award to themselves. The ARA is also requesting $88,000 in board salaries. The decisions those members make that result in personal benefits will automatically be suspect, Poplin claims.

What residents fear most, notes Kimbles, is how eminent domain powers will be used once the urban renewal aspect of the ARA kicks in. "I own property there and I've got elderly family there," says Kimbles, "so I'm very concerned when meetings go on without us."

Remarks that Mitchell made at last Thursday's council meeting concerning the board brought new concerns to worried residents. During a presentation of staff recommendations by Assistant City Manager Oscar Rodriquez on negotiating a contract with the ARA, Mitchell balked at any suggestion that the city "dictate" either how many members the board has or who will be its director. "Are part of your contract negotiations going to be that you are going to tell a private non-profit group how many people they can have on their board?" asked Mitchell.

"It is our intent to require 15, unless council does not wish us to do that," answered City Manager Jesus Garza at the end of the meeting.

However, Rodriguez now says that since staff heard nary a peep of protest to Mitchell's wish to add more members if he so desires, that requirement has been dropped from the ARA contract negotiations. Councilmembers Jackie Goodman, Gus Garcia, Ronney Reynolds, and Max Nofziger were silent on the issue. (Mayor Bruce Todd left the meeting early due to a cold, and Brigid Shea was out, "working on the completion of a nine-month project," joked Todd.)

Rogers says the move means Mitchell can pile more developers on the board, further muffling dissenting voices. Poplin adds that intricacies within the authority's by-laws could facilitate exclusion. The by-laws consider five members a quorum, though the board has at least 15 seats. And according to Poplin, the quorum can set future meetings without notification. "No announcement whatsoever," complains Poplin. "Five of them could go to a restaurant and conduct ARA business."

Poplin adds that the clause "flies in the face" of the council's mandate on November 16 for an open and inclusive redevelopment process. "OCEAN went out on a leap of faith to engage in a constructive dialogue," says Poplin. "The only way you can do that is if you're invited to the table. They're not being allowed that."

Kimbles and the other three OCEAN reps finally attended their first ARA meeting last Saturday in the Bank One building in Capital Plaza, but only six other board members bothered to show. As for specifics on planning, Kimbles says the only project discussed was a proposal to build a 43,000-square-foot office building. A bad idea, says Kimbles. "Small businesses with breezeways are more appropriate for that neighborhood," she says. Also, says Rogers, it would benefit community residents if smaller, more affordable buildings were sold to local mom-and-pop shops rather than having small businesses rent office space from a rich developer.

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The council once again voted to approve its secret settlement with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, in connection with the city's lawsuit against the company for allegedly installing faulty steam generators in the South Texas Project nuclear plant. The council had to vote again on the issue after it was discovered that proper notice had not been given at the last meeting. Mayor Todd maintained that the need to achieve a "good settlement" outweighed the need to inform the public of its terms. Goodman, Garcia, Reynolds, Nofziger, and Todd voted in favor, with Mitchell abstaining. Travis County Attorney Ken Oden says he is still analyzing whether the council was legally bound to reveal the agreement.

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Next council meeting: January 4, when the council will vote on two ordinances regarding Austin's homeless. One is Todd's "encampment" ordinance, and the other is Nofziger's proposed counter-ordinance to exempt drainage utility fees for churches that shelter homeless people.

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