Heavy Mettle

Fact of Life

None of this is intended to minimize the genuine neglect, and at times direct oppression, of Austin's Mexican-American community by the city's elites. Racism, enviro- and otherwise, directed against East Austin is a fact, not a canard. Where we run into difficulty is in generalizing everything that is alien to our current values as evidence of the malign motives of past generations, and using the consequent symbolism as a weapon.

For example, the 1931 zoning map well predates the ascension of single-use zoning as planning gospel; in the pre-WWII context, it was not at all odd for working-class neighborhoods in any city to be located near, or amidst, the industrial districts where their residents toiled. (Nor, of course, were those industrial uses automatically held to be harmful to their neighbors.) It wasn't until some years later that one can discern any kind of official Austin policy to replace residential property with industrial -- an ineffective effort at best. And the ordinances in place for much of Austin's history allowed residential development almost anywhere, regardless of the zoning. This is why 40% of the current LI-zoned, or light industrial, property in East Austin is actually being used for housing.

If we were talking about small shops or offices, instead of warehouses and metal shops, we would call this "mixed-use" and think it is a virtue. But our postmodern definitions of "mixed use" have so far omitted any vestige of true industry from the Smart Growth beau ideal; indeed, it was this "mismatch" that prompted the city's first efforts to Do Something About the Rust Belt. The East Austin overlay ordinance, approved in July 1997, requires LI, CS (commercial), and CS-1 (the zoning required for liquor stores, which is a whole other issue) property owners to get a conditional-use permit before they can develop or redevelop any of 14 different types of uses, even though all are normally permitted by the zoning. (A conditional-use permit is generally required to do something that isn't allowed by the zoning, as with the Dell Jewish Community Center, a case that also turned on such permits.)

So far, only one case has triggered the overlay -- the expansion and renovation of Arnold Oil Co. (about which Greenberger was writing in the above-quoted piece). This project managed to be approved by the Planning Commission and City Council despite the immense hurdle posed by the need for a conditional-use permit: Both commission and council have to decide on nine "findings of fact" in the applicant's favor, and approval of the permit requires super-majority votes.

The city was ultimately swayed by the fact that Arnold Oil proposed a much nicer facility than the one they currently had, which is a good thing given the obvious disincentive that the overlay presents to the incumbent owners and tenants. (One can only speculate how many projects would have been proposed, good as well as bad, were the overlay not in place.) But the Eastside leaders who spurred the creation of the overlay -- notably former planning commissioner Cathy Vasquez-Revilla and current Commissioner Susanna Almanza -- went on record to denounce the decision as a betrayal of the spirit of their effort. "Is the city serious about turning East Austin around, or is it just rhetoric?" Vasquez-Revilla asked the daily.

Oppressive Landscape

"Turning East Austin around" should not automatically mean making East Austin different; not every LI or CS use is a prima facie oppressor of or hazard to its neighbors, and we've all by now been schooled in the virtues of a living-and-working neighborhood -- and East Austin is, last we checked, still pretty darn working-class. But although our zoning ordinance tends (across the board) to require more restrictive zoning than a particular use might really justify, there are so many East Austin projects that are oppressive and hazardous as to make the point politically moot. Holly Power Plant is one. The now-closed and lately down-zoned tank farm is another. (Down-zoning the tank farm was seen as a strategy to speed up its cleanup.)

And the Browning-Ferris, Inc. and Balcones Recycling plants are two others, both likewise down-zoned as part of the same wave that produced the overlay. Rezonings only take effect once the use (or owner) changes, however, and the fate of BFI, in particular, has been a civic headache for the intervening two years, inextricable from the city's generally screwed-up solid-waste disposal contracts. The city's latest trial balloon, floated in January, is to simply condemn the place. That only leaves about 125 other LI-zoned and industrial-use parcels to eradicate from the Rust Belt, through means yet to be determined, if that is indeed what "turning East Austin around" means.

Such nasty landmarks as BFI define the political opposition to renewed industrial development in East Austin, and in themselves are enough to justify the overlay as a tool, if not as a blunt instrument. But in any case, our standard ordinances may make it impossible, even if the market and the council and the neighbors could find common cause on The Right Project. Because so much of the LI property is actually used for housing, any adjacent industrial project has to now conform to city compatibility standards, which dictate setbacks and buffers so wide as to make many such lots impossible to develop as anything but housing. It was because of this that, after a few twists and turns, the Planning Commission last month gave the nod to downzoning most of a block of LI-zoned houses near Brooke Elementary.

"Were there to be people who, for whatever reason, think it's a good thing to live near industrial work, the zoning categories would prohibit it outright," says Planning Commissioner Ben Heimsath. "And if we were to create a new zoning district, you'll run into the areas in the code that make compatibility an issue. You run into neighborhood protection as the primary directive, instead of promoting a vibrant mixed-use area."

This, of course, applies equally to any newer-model industrial ghetto, such as the eastern half of Ben White Boulevard or, more piquantly, the high-tech campus corridors of the north. Even if Michael Dell wanted to build worker housing on-site, he couldn't, without leaping some fairly high hurdles. But it becomes that much more galling when you already have both the residences and the industrial projects in place, but can't make them work together.

Brave New World

The same provisions hinder the redevelopment of LI properties as residential -- i.e., lofts -- though surely the Eastside gentrification watchdogs would make their ire known if the L-word were ever used in their neighborhoods, even if it were practicable. (Although Cathy Vasquez-Revilla did tell the Chronicle back in 1997 that, if the LI property owners were smart, they would be redeveloping their parcels as single-or multi-family, since that was clearly where East Austin was headed.)

This poses its own quandary because, like it or not, the preponderance of industrial development in el barrio, as much if not more than the East Austin same-old, has kept the area from being gentrified any more than it has. It is to avoid gentrification, they say, that neighborhood leaders like El Concilio's Gavino Fernandez oppose Capital Metro's light-rail plans, which would use the old tracks and railyard (which Cap Met owns) as its terminus and would rather quickly clear out marginal industrial uses from the trackside. And it is gentrification that is feared by opponents (again including Fernandez) to the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood plan, which calls for new mixed-use Smart Growth zoning along that neighborhood's portion of the Rust Belt.

So if you can't use this land as either residential or industrial, or turn its infrastructure into an asset, what do you do with it? What is starting to emerge in the East Cesar Chavez area -- and which fed into its zoning proposal -- is a belt of artisan shops and small-scale high tech. Notable in this light is 500 Chicon Street, known of late as the home of a short-lived gay bathhouse, now a high-tech workshop.

"When that property was first developed in the 1920s, it was a fuel distribution depot," says Greg Guernsey, the city's development process manager. "They had racks in the back where they filled trucks from overhead storage tanks. That's an example of a building that has evolved through time to something that's much more beneficial and neighborhood-friendly than what was there 60 years ago."

Of course, if the leading-edge economy were keen to absorb the hundreds of acres and parcels of LI and CS property in East Austin, this would not be a public policy problem. But as Heimsath notes, we're still at the beginning of the public effort toward renewing the Rust Belt. "Now, we take the attitude that LI is a grab bag for uses we don't want anywhere else. But there's ample time to develop the kind of districts we do want, and locate and design them so that they can respond to the various characters we need in this city."

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