Get on the Bus

illustration by Doug Potter

For starters, they could all agree on the heat. In the past, the diverse group of approximately 30 people who boarded a Capitol Metro bus for a historical tour of East Austin last Wednesday would have had plenty to argue about. Maybe it was the stifling temperature that kept all tongues civil that day, but more likely it was the realization that a new city council is in town and business as usual in East Austin is about to change. Several stakeholders came along for the ride -- developers, city employees, councilmembers, non-profit groups, business owners, residents -- all of them somehow concerned with the revitalization of East Austin. Agreement between the factions is rare, but no one on the bus wanted to talk about feuds. All that was in the past -- well, at least two, maybe even three weeks ago, anyway.

In its first four weeks, the new council has proven that it's going to be looking at East Austin politics, and neighborhood politics in general, in a different light than did previous councils. Contention over the development of East Austin is legendary, especially since the ascension of Eric Mitchell to council in 1994. Mitchell took more interest in the development of the Eastside than any councilmember before him, but he created more political infighting at the same time. One of Mitchell's first acts as a councilmember was to create the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), a non-profit board charged with revitalizing East 11th and 12th Streets. The ARA immediately got into political hot water with surrounding neighborhoods which were not represented on the board, and which feared the bulldozing tactics of Seventies-style "urban renewal." After all, Mitchell's stated position on historic preservation involved "a dollar's worth of gasoline and a match." Although ARA was eventually forced to appoint neighborhood representatives to its board, area residents have continued to complain about the group's unwillingness to communicate with the neighborhood.

For example, Eva Lindsey, who restored and owns the 50-year-old Victory Grill on East 11th, has taken issue in the press with ARA's secretive tactics. But she gladly joined fellow ARA members on last Wednesday's bus ride through East Austin. Lindsey, who says she saved the Victory Grill from being bulldozed by the ARA, has been concerned that ARA's "revitalization" would include destroying the historical buildings in the area. "There was [anti-preservation] sentiment early on, but it's shifting now... with the new city council," says a hopeful Lindsey.

Councilmember Willie Lewis, who organized the bus tour, agrees. "The ARA realized now that they... have to get out there and associate with people because the neighborhood people can take them out if they want to," he says, confirming the new power of neighborhoods with council.

Notably absent from the tour was Gene Watkins, developer of the Scattered Cooperative Infill Project (SCIP II) which has finally begun construction on 100 homes in a triangle of land between 11th and 12th Streets, just east of I-35. A handful of historic homes were removed from the SCIP II parcel to make way for the development, and some councilmembers are now questioning whether the decision makes economic sense. As Councilmember Daryl Slusher observed at last week's work session: "So we're building houses now that are close to $115,000 to construct and selling them for $60,000." Who makes up the shortfall? The taxpayers. Slusher also noted that "this project has moved some historic homes." Historic preservationists from Galveston visiting Austin for the bus tour pointed out that their program, which restores homes at an average cost of $33,000, breaks even by selling the homes at approximately the same price.

But Watkins disputes the notion that restoring historic homes in East Austin would make more economic sense than razing them and building anew. "That's easy to say when you're eye-balling it, but by the time you finish [restoration] you've spent a lot more than what it costs to build a new house, and you still have a house that in a number of ways is not marketable to families or suitable to modern-day living."

The final bill for the SCIP II project will come to about $6.4 million in city and federal monies. Developer Watkins stands to make about a $6,000 commission per house, which he characterizes as "no great boon. It's an honest living." Watson says that the reason his arrangement with the development project is being scrutinized is because he is an African American. "Maybe the issue is that we need more African American developers in Austin so that it doesn't call so much attention to the one who is active," Watkins says.

Not all the developers were balking from the tour. Gary Wardian climbed aboard the bus, representing Bennett Consolidated, which owns a plot of land fronting I-35 between East 11th and East Seventh Streets. Bennett has been planning to build a retail shopping center -- Wardian says he hates the word "mall" -- on the site since 1986, but efforts have been stalled, mainly by neighborhood opposition. Nevertheless, Wardian came with all smiles to tour the neighborhood where his mall would live. "This is a very complex project because there are a lot of different interest groups in this part of town where it's so compact. Every time you move 100 feet down the street there's another set of history. But it's not an either history or economic development question; the two can work very effectively together," says Wardian, who is going to face a much tougher fight at council against nearby neighborhoods very soon.

Also on the bus were Eleanor Thompson, executive associate of the East Austin Economic Development Corporation (EAEDC), and Letty McGarrahan of the Guadalupe Association of Independent Neighborhoods (GAIN). The EAEDC -- a development arm of Ebenezer Baptist Church on East 11th Street -- has been fighting GAIN for 10 years over the Bennett development. Ebenezer supports Bennett's plans to build a mall in the neighborhood, while GAIN opposes any development in the area which is detrimental to existing residential housing. During the first two weeks of the new council, however, representatives from GAIN and EAEDC sat down to collaborate on a "litmus test" for the Bennett development and found several points of agreement. "What happened is that [EAEDC] knew that with this council we're going to be looking for a rollback of Bennett's zoning," says Mark Rogers, President of GAIN.

And with this council, GAIN is more likely to get that rollback. Last Thursday, the new council approved the East Austin Overlay District, which allows for notification of residents whenever industries within 1,000 feet of homes, schools, or churches decide to expand or a new industry is looking to locate in the area. At their July 10 meeting, the new council rolled back the zoning of the BFI Recycling plant, which abuts onto an East Austin neighborhood, from industrial to office uses only. BFI can stay, because they're grandfathered in, but if they ever sell the property, its industrial days are over. GAIN has every reason to believe that the new council will look at the development of a massive mall complex on top of their neighborhood in a different light than did the 1991 council that approved Bennett's zoning. A new council has taken power, and a new era of cooperation in politically charged East Austin has dawned.

Cooperation is something Eric Mitchell never did understand very well, and his defeat against Lewis a few weeks back apparently did not teach him anything new. The night before the bus tour, Mitchell held a meeting at the Metropolitan AME church on East 11th Street, ostensibly to discuss organizing for the second anniversary of the Million Man March in October. But it didn't take long for Mitchell to begin venting his anger about the historical tour and its purposes. Mitchell would not return phone calls, but his political ally Dorothy Turner confirms that during the meeting Mitchell once again suggested burning down historical homes in East Austin instead of preserving them, and she says she agrees with the sentiment. "I have a serious problem with white folks coming over here and telling us what is historical. What some white folks think is history is just bad memories for us," says Turner, echoing Mitchell's canon that the old homes are just a reminder of discrimination.

According to Turner, Mitchell even discussed picketing the bus tour and using kids involved in the city-funded East Side Stories program to march in protest and wave signs. Never mind the ethical questions involved with using participants in a city-funded program to protest a city-sponsored bus tour. "Nobody's going to use this program," says East Side Stories director Larry Jackson.

Not surprisingly, the protest never materialized. However, Turner says, that's only because she and Mitchell were unable to get their hands on a map of the bus tour route. It appears that not only Mitchell, but his head-butting political style have gone the way of the dinosaur, now. While Lewis is still no great orator (microphone feedback problems on the bus didn't help), the bus tour proves that he is prepared to think of creative solutions to East Austin's problems, and to keep his ego out of the debate.

And the sight of political enemies sharing space on the bus was promising. Apparently it was enough to merely remove Mitchell from the East Austin equation for the battling parties to fall into bed together. Now it remains to be seen if the Eastside factions can actually find enough common ground on which to rebuild East Austin.

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