The Austin Chronicle

The ARA Myth

Empty Promises on the Eastside

By Mike Clark-Madison, June 20, 1997, News

Eric Mitchell wasn't very good at his job. Had this not been true, no amount of rock-star money and Green Machine support would have unseated him. If Mitchell had given the Eastside even a fragment of what he said he alone could deliver, and in doing so had refrained from using and abusing both sides of the interstate, he would have run unopposed for re-election. So it's his own damn fault.

What makes Eric's loose talk, post-defeat, about racism so trebly offensive is his own shamelessness in exploiting entrenched mainstream racism for his own benefit. The Mitchell Myth -- that he alone is the Man with the Plan for the Eastside, and that all who oppose him are actually opposed to progress -- is based on the premise that there needs to be a Plan-with-a-big-P at all, that East Austin is helpless on its own, that investors will never spend their own money there, and that citizens and neighborhoods and community leaders degraded the Eastside themselves and prefer it that way. This is a convenient belief for the Macro Austin leaders who backed Eric, since it allows them to wash their own hands of 40 years of neglect and ill-treatment, but it's racism pure and simple, and Mitchell is hardly its victim. The local media outlets that Mitchell has deigned to talk to -- he wouldn't comment for this story -- have perpetuated that myth, with softball questions of the "whatever-will-East-Austin-do-without- you" variety.

And it isn't true -- or at least it isn't true in those parts of East Austin where Mitchell didn't succeed in imposing his dictatorial rule. Where Eric did establish complete control, things have not improved a bit. Elsewhere, the Eastside, like the rest of town, is taking part in the biggest development frenzy to hit Austin in a decade. Yet most of Austin still seems to believe that we need some sort of Eric Mitchell to be the man on horseback who saves East Austin. The best thing the new Council could do is dispense with this paternalistic and manipulative mindset, and the whole town would be surprised at how much genuine renewal can take place without a dime of public money being spent.

The first public steps at deconstructing the Mitchell Myth will likely be taken July 10, with a scheduled Council hearing on Mitchell's cherished and highly controversial Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), the quasi-public entity created to reinvent the derelict 11th and 12th Street corridor. Officially, the project's target area encompasses 12th Street from I-35 to Poquito Street, 11th from the freeway to Navasota, and the south side of Juniper Street, one block north of 11th at the I-35 end. The Juniper Street addition marks the ARA's Green Line with the Anderson Hill (née SCIP II) housing project, another flawed and stalled-out, top-down Macro Austin attempt at Eastside renewal.

In theory, the July 10 hearing only concerns the "Slum and Blight" study done by ARA and its consultants, a federally defined survey that establishes eligibility for certain HUD monies. The Slum-and-Blight is only required for part of the $10 million ARA is asking the city to request, and the Feds only ask that 51% of a target area be designated by the city as blighted -- which it would do by adopting the ARA's study -- before HUD lets loose of this money. ("Blighted" to HUD means deteriorated beyond repair, dilapidated enough to be out of code compliance, or vacant.)

Few dispute this ultimate conclusion, so the Slum and Blight study was presented by ARA and its consiglieri on city staff as a housekeeping chore, to be dispensed with quickly on the way to more exciting work, like master-planning the 11th/12th corridor, and by doing so deciding which property owners will be effectively forced to sell or face eminent domain, and building with HUD money a 40,000-square-foot office complex somewhere along the corridor. (The authority claims to have acceded to community demands that this be broken up into 40,000 total square feet, spread among smaller and more scattered sites, but ARA and city documents do not consistently reflect this change.)

The authority's haste, however, set off the Ramrod Alarm, and its attached Boondoggle Detector, among both city council members and the neighborhood groups along the corridor, who've been fighting with the ARA and its handpicked-by-Mitchell board since its creation two years ago. (For the record, and as a reminder, this reporter is the president of one of those neighborhood associations.) After some additional funny business, including a backstairs attempt to whip together an emergency meeting of the Community Development Commission to rubber-stamp the at that point unfinished study, council action upon the survey, originally scheduled for Mitchell's last meeting last week, got kicked into the middle of next month.

Instead of focusing on federally mandated technicalities, this hearing will likely instead open up the entire question of the ARA -- what it is, what it's done, and what it should do, if anything. It won't be a good night for the authority, even if the remnants of the Mitchell Mob show up to make trouble on its behalf. In the esteem of both community groups (including but not limited to neighborhoods) and property owners along the corridor, the ARA board long ago went off the grid when it came to the candid and ethical stewardship of the public interest, let alone the public purse.

Back in 1995, when Mitchell presented his ARA board slate to the council for its approval, he included no neighborhood representatives at all. Heavy arm-twisting and on-the-spot, off-the-dais negotiation led to four neighborhood reps being added to the board, which currently has 19 members. Two of those reps have since been dismissed (and not replaced), one in favor of a handpicked vote from the Anderson Community Development Corporation, proprietors of SCIP II, which was allowed by fiat to take over the Robertson Hill N.A.'s seat. (Anderson's executive director, Raydell Galloway, already sits on the ARA board.) The other dismissed rep was supposedly sacked for poor attendance, though other ARA reps with similar attendance records reportedly remain on the board. (When contacted by this reporter for this article, ARA board members said they were prohibited, under threat of dismissal, from talking to the press about the ARA. The chairman of the ARA board, Herman Lessard, did not return phone calls seeking comment.)

On top of that, at its recent meeting the board voted, incredibly, to expel from its number the Rev. Marvin Griffin, who as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church is not only one of East Austin's longest-running and most-revered community leaders but also the steward of the church's substantial property holdings on and near 11th Street. "It was simply insulting that they excluded Dr. Griffin, whose congregation had invested $1 million into that corridor," says Van Johnson, who works closely with Griffin and Ebenezer as director of the East Austin Economic Development Corporation (EAEDC). "There's something evil about that." Griffin, of course, broke with many of his colleagues in the Eastside churches by supporting Willie Lewis in the election.

Ultimately, it matters little who sits on the larger ARA board, since the real decisions, and the information surrounding them, have been controlled by the smaller ARA Executive Committee, which includes no community reps of any definition. "Even people who were on the board, like Dr. Griffin, never had an opportunity to participate. He only knew what was going on from hearsay," says Johnson. "We have no idea what ARA wants to do because they've never made their work public. The best word to describe the process so far would be `surreptitious,' (and) when people operate in darkness, they usually do so for a reason." ARA board chair Lessard did not return phone calls seeking comment on Griffin's ouster.

The executive committee has busied itself spending the $275,000-plus fronted by the city for the ARA's management services. One beneficiary is former Assistant City Manager Byron Marshall, currently the chief administrative officer of the City of Atlanta, whose on-the-side consultancy receives $3,000 for each of the two weekends of work a month he devotes to ARA. Given that Marshall departed Austin under fire shortly after the sacking of his boss Camille Barnett, his return to town business has raised eyebrows and generated at least one citizen open-records request. Likewise, when it contracted out the master plan at the heart of ARA's efforts, the executive committee ignored the extensive local planning community, which has already generated at least three plans over the last two decades for the corridor, and hired a team from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

"I'm still trying to figure out why you need to go to South Florida and Atlanta when Austin is loaded with all this expertise," Johnson says. "That's a big question mark. And why can't the whole board participate in this hiring process?"

All questions sure to be asked on July 10, as three years' worth of frustration with a process that, under Mitchell, seemed hopeless, explodes into a potential TKO of the ARA. Expect more detailed probing into the authority's books, calls for an independent financial and performance audit, and renewed efforts to give community reps a voting majority on the board. "The ARA wasn't intended to have input from the affected neighborhoods, and that definitely needs to be revisited," says East Austin Strategy Team (EAST) director Ron Davis, Mitchell's opponent in 1994 and ever since. "We encourage development, but the neighborhood must be included at a level where they can make binding decisions."

The council probably can't directly mandate this change upon ARA, which like other "authorities" operates by its own set of bylaws. The obvious "or else" would be refusing to accept the Slum and Blight study, or the subsequent master plan -- originally envisioned by ARA to be completed in November, though that timeline will surely be delayed -- and thus turning off the tap of HUD money. These actions would also keep the city's own substantial property holdings in the corridor (at last count, 19 parcels) out of effective control by the ARA. One of these parcels, the old Shorty's Bar building on 11th and Waller, has become a scandalette in its own right, as ARA has devised a scheme for renovating it with nearly $500,000 of public money -- this being a property that, right before Eric Mitchell took office, the City was preparing to sell for $35,000.

Even if ARA dodges a fatal bullet on July 10, the master-planning process could prove terminal. While there have been objectors from the beginning to an entity other than the city, with limited public accountability at best, developing a land-use plan affecting thousands of people and intended to be enforced if necessary through eminent domain, the council has heretofore seen fit to accept it. However, at the same time as the outgoing council has allowed the ARA to move forward, it has also signed off, with much pride, on a process designed, with much labor, to allow neighborhoods to devise their own land-use plans. And all four winners last month proudly supported neighborhood-based planning during their campaigns.

To no one's surprise, the pilot neighborhood-plan project requires community planning teams to include the broad base of area residents and businesses, to communicate with them regularly and extensively, and to demonstrate to the city that they have those folks' support. The ARA has never dreamed of this type of openness and inclusion, let alone attempted it, and likely won't be able to accomplish it between now and November. Even if the law allows it to do so -- which, ultimately, it may not -- the council will be hard pressed to approve the ARA master plan and maintain credibility among the neighborhood activists who did so very much to get it elected.

So the city may end up dispensing with an ARA master plan entirely, even it if allows a cleaned-up authority to play some other, more benign role in Eastside renewal. The Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN), formed in response to its member associations' exclusion from ARA, is working with Johnson and Griffin, heirs to the East 11th Street Village Association's "Operation Impact" revitalization plan from a decade ago, to devise an alternative to an ARA plan. This vision combines public funding for needed infrastructure improvements along the corridor -- including an allotment from Capital Metro currently being considered by the Austin Transportation Study, which has been presented there as a project of Mitchell's ally Jo Baylor -- combined with privately funded mixed-use development and renovation in the surrounding area, built under the sorts of New-Compact-Urbanist-City rules and standards now in vogue, and eschewing eminent domain or other means to force incumbent property owners to play ball or go home.

Those of you who've followed Eastside politics might be surprised at collaboration between OCEAN -- which was organized by the Guadalupe neighborhood association with help from Ron Davis -- and Ebenezer and EAEDC, who have in the past squabbled with the neighborhoods, especially over Bennett Properties' proposed East Side Mall. And already, the two have differed on some matters of principle -- for example, while OCEAN objects to local property speculators like Baylor and Cal Varner having seats on an ARA board, Johnson faults ARA for precisely its lack of "people who have their own money invested in the corridor. They need to put their money where their mouths are." Yet the players' new common cause is rooted not just in mutual antipathy toward Mitchell -- both the neighborhoods and the non-ARA property owners believe that Eric and the ARA have hindered real opportunities to redevelop the corridor.

This revival tent on East 12th street reflects the spirit of hope in revitalizing East Austin.

Anyone cruising the Inner Eastside today can see signs of a boom that will likely last through the decade, and by century's end controlling, rather than promoting, East Austin revitalization may become the latest craze. Lying at the community crossroads, the East 11th/12th corridor should be part of this boom as well, which means that ARA needs to explain how, under its wise rule, the corridor has actually become more blighted than it was when Eric took office. According to OCEAN, when the city in 1994 readied its 11th Street properties for near-term sale, at least a dozen small businesses, some with pre-approved bank loans, made offers on the city parcels. With Mitchell's ascension, the city's land was instead earmarked for eventual ARA control, and business owners have since taken their plans and funds elsewhere.

Those who already own land on the corridor, like EAEDC, have likewise been held up awaiting ARA's closely guarded vision for renewal. "East 11th Street would have been developed anyway -- it was well on its way," says Johnson. "ARA just slowed it down. We're here, and we have an investment of real people's money. So we're concerned about what takes place here, and we think we have a right to determine what happens to property that we've bought and paid for."

This is not the same as asserting, as Ron Davis does, that "neighborhoods come first and we move forward from there. Plans always have to be in the best interest of the communities that have to live with them." The fear is very real that, without the common enemy of Eric Mitchell to unite them, the disparate Eastside will collapse into (or return to) internecine warfare. And averting this outcome is the ultimate challenge the councilmembers, especially Willie Lewis, now face. But living through the Eric Mitchell Experience has allowed formerly contentious interests to focus on what unites rather than divides them. "Eric's programs were mostly bad; they weren't in the interest of people and they didn't have any people's input," says Johnson. "And there's a better way to do things. Whether I or anybody else likes it, people often know what's best for them, and they should be heard."

Ed. Note: Author Mike Clark-Madison is president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association.

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