A Dickensian Prospect

Great Expectations or Bleak Housing in Austin?

illustration by Doug Potter

It was the best of progressivism, it was the worst of progressivism. It was the age of economic sustainability, it was the age of inflated real estate. It was the epoch of mediated dialogue, it was the epoch of polemical posturing. It was the season of consensus, it was the season of influence. It was the spring of managed growth, it was the winter of empire building. In short, last week's council meeting was a stunning juxtaposition of priorities in the current council's push to define Austin's future. There wasn't much meat for the ravenous press contingent at council last week, just as there hasn't been much meat on any council agenda since the exhausting rounds of annexation hearings began six weeks ago. But, in his inimitable fashion, Mayor Kirk Watson saved the day for headline-hunters and city hall spin doctors alike by bringing forward the too-perfect foil for city-limits-stretching: reinvestment in our downtown. With the entire council along for the ride with sibling downtown revitalization proposals, Watson pitched his plan to build three high-rise apartment complexes on three under-utilized city lots downtown, two blocks west of Congress between First and Second Streets next to the council annex, in an area that the Todd council had touted for a new City Hall. As such, the chamber was fairly brimming with developers and businessmen lining up to leave offerings of praise and strategically distributed business cards on the altar of Watson's genius.

No sooner did the cash-saturated crowd drain off, however, than the chambers filled once again for a public hearing on a proposed apartment complex of a different kind. The Tannehill apartments, which required only council's approval for rezoning to start construction in a quiet, primarily African-American section of Northeast Austin, would provide 186 units of affordable housing for low-to-middle-income renters. But while pronouncements on the critical need for new central city housing still echoed off the chamber walls, council chose to delay approval of Tannehill's zoning, at the risk of thwarting the project altogether.

What was so different about the two apartment projects that council could, in one afternoon, exalt the one and stall the other? For starters, the mayor's downtown utopia offers no guarantee of affordability, seeming more in the price range of financially secure empty-nesters and power-career couples sans rugrats. By contrast, Tannehill secured federal tax credits by ensuring that 75% of its units would rent to those earning under 60% of median income level, and would encourage family tenants by providing day care and recreation facilities on site. And while Tannehill is subject not only to council scrutiny but to several oversight committees as well, Watson's Downtownland is all systems go -- having already signed on Columbus Realty to develop the projects -- without so much as an open bidding process for construction contracts or a peep off the dais.

The irony did not escape the African-American business community who came down to gingerly, and with all due respect, suggest that Watson might consider their interests in his grand plan. Gene Watkins, developer of the city- and federally funded Scattered Cooperative Infill Project (SCIP II) -- a part-rental, part-ownership development of single-family homes in East Austin with income requirements similar to Tannehill's -- showed up to pose a few questions as president of the Capital City Chamber of Commerce, a primarily African-American business organization. In a letter distributed to the press, Watkins asked: "What is the nature and degree of African-American ownership in the proposed downtown developments? In the absence of a public Request for Proposal (RFP) what requirements did the city negotiate with the selected developers to assure a competitive and maximum inclusion of African-Americans?"

The Rev. Sterling Lands of Praise Tabernacle Church, whose primary concern that day was marshaling dozens of his congregation in support of Tannehill, nevertheless chanced council's annoyance by suggesting that the downtown proposal should address affordability. "I encourage you to consider that a highly mixed community could best represent us into the future. Please include the element that deals with low to moderate income," he implored.

Calls for affordability and minority participation were drowned out, however, by worshipful praise of the mayor and council from almost every sector of Austin's political landscape. Glenn West, the full-time president of the Chamber of Commerce, was there to laud the downtown plan, as was Mary Arnold of the Save Barton Creek Association. Former councilmember and downtown developer Robert Barnstone came to deliver not just praise, but absolution. "This is the time when you can exercise your judgment as stewards of the public interest. We can discuss the proper role of competition and we could spend a long time on that process...[but] there is no process so pure it's going to substitute for the process of [council's] judgment. The only thing people will remember is what gets built," he stated.

For a brief, shining moment, Watson's promised fence-mending between environmental and business concerns seemed to be coalescing before our eyes. Even the dissenters seemed easily appeased by the spirit of the moment.

Nevertheless, of all the official resolutions made that day in the name of Austin's future, none so much as mentioned, much less ensured, affordability. Councilmember Daryl Slusher, who teamed up with Watson in creating the downtown housing plan, later gave assurances that some affordable component would be included, and suggested that it was too soon to judge the proposal. "All that's been done is to set a process in motion. It's going to be very public about the way it gets done," Slusher explains. However, Pete Winstead, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce chairman and legal counsel to Columbus Realty, says the developer is not yet sure if an affordable component will be included.

As the back-patting session wound down, Watson stepped off the dais for a recess between hearings and gave a brotherly squeeze to Rev. Lands' shoulder. "This council doesn't want to do just a bunch of rich stuff," Watson promised Lands, adding, "If we're spurring it, we get to set the standards!"

Lands gave an upbeat "Yes," to Watson, perhaps hoping to elicit some future mayoral favor for the Tannehill complex. But, unfortunately for Lands, winning over Watson was the least of his troubles. Watson's good buddy Richard Suttle was in the house as legal counsel for Tannehill developer Tim Merriweather, and in the pre-hearing huddles, Watson seemed to be working the room in support of the project. Despite top-down support, though, Tannehill was up against a daunting wall of opposition from the elderly residents of the surrounding Springdale Hills neighborhood who came sporting a valid petition against Tannehill.

At first glance the issue seemed to be simple: The elderly residents of a long-established, quiet residential community were trying to keep a large apartment complex from jeopardizing their quality of life. But as the details of the deal were revealed, it seemed, as Councilmember Beverly Griffith was overheard commenting before the hearing, to grow "curiouser and curiouser." Elderly neighborhood residents filled chairs on one side of chambers, and twenty-somethings filled chairs on the other, as the battle lines seemed to be drawn not over economic class so much as age. The older neighborhood residents argued that they had been cut out of discussion over the project until the last minute, while Praise Tabernacle Church was clearly in bed with Tannehill's developers. The church and the developers responded that the residents had rebuffed their attempts to work with the neighborhood. In fact, an advisory committee of neighborhood residents was part of Tannehill's proposal, but area residents argued that the board would have nothing but paper power.

Robert Swan, a fresh-faced recent college grad, brought forth more than 200 signatures on a petition supporting the need for affordable housing in the area. After speaking to council, however, Swan explained to this reporter that he was, in fact, a seminary student studying with Praise Tabernacle. In fact, it became obvious that all of the more than 75 young speakers arguing about the desperate need for affordable housing were in some way connected to the church.

The mystery of Praise Tabernacle's official involvement with the project slowly unraveled throughout the meeting, until Councilmember Gus Garcia asked for a clear explanation of its role. The church is directly across the street from Tannehill and, it seems, had known about Tannehill's construction long before the surrounding neighborhood. According to Praise's senior pastor Dr. Dana Carson, the relationship is simple: Although Praise is putting no financial stake into the construction of the project or the purchase of the land, the church's involvement helped secure federal tax credits for investors, credits which double the available development funds. Praise will be involved in an advisory capacity in decision-making about the complex during the federally mandated 15-year period in which the apartments remain affordable according to federal guidelines. If Tannehill goes up for sale after the 15 years are up, Praise has the legal right of first refusal to purchase the complex, and the mandate for affordability of rents is lifted. In a somewhat glossed-over fashion, this arrangement was first explained to council after two hours of emotional public hearings and illuminated a great deal of the preceding argumentative testimony during which neighborhood residents seemed to be suggesting something fishy about the young people's heartfelt testimony on the need for housing.

Finally, in keeping with its neighborhoods-friendly doctrine, council asked the developers to go back and try to develop a more meaningful oversight capacity for area residents, but Suttle suggested that the delay might sink the project by missing the deadline to accept the tax credits. "This project is getting enough uncertainty that I think it's dying its own death," Suttle said. "You're saying that there can be no multi-family in this area," he argued. "That's what you're saying, that's not what I'm saying," answered Garcia. Councilmember Bill Spelman had the last word before the council voted unanimously to pass the zoning on first hearing only. "I would have no qualms whatever about this taking place in my own neighborhood, but -- like Daryl and like Gus -- I'm going to vote for this [delay] purely so that the developer and his agent can work with [the neighborhood]. I hope that your development doesn't lose too much money out of it," he offered.

Suttle now says Tannehill will certainly be back on the agenda in two weeks, when the valid petition of area residents against its construction will mean that rezoning will require a six-vote majority. Although Suttle says that some meetings with the neighborhood have taken place, residents have not softened their opposition. A 4-3 vote killing the project seems inevitable -- and affordable housing will be the unintended victim.

This Week In Council:

No council meeting this week (November 19).

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