A Change of Scenery

What It Looks Like

map of rainey areaSome lay of the land: Rainey Street itself runs north-south through the middle of the 88.5-acre Rainey neighborhood, which lies between I-35 and Waller Creek, Cesar Chavez Street and Town Lake. Most of the property lying to the east (along East Avenue) and west (along Red River) of Rainey Street is either vacant or has been given over to downtown-type uses, though not necessarily the higher-end uses envisioned for the New Downtown.

This would include everything from the Holiday Inn and Towers of Town Lake to a major printing plant, offices for the Austin Fire Department and Texas MHMR, several other office and multi-family developments, and -- don't forget -- the newly approved, as-yet-unbuilt Mexican-American Cultural Center (MACC). And across the street, of course, is the Convention Center, for which Rainey has become an auxiliary parking lot. Right in the middle of all this, on or just off Rainey Street itself, are the 49 single-family homes that have so complicated this issue.

These are what remain of more than 150 homes that were standing -- though often barely -- in 1967, when Austin's old urban-renewal program did what we think is the first comprehensive land-use survey of the area, at the time considered a high priority for clearance. Though this is one of Austin's oldest settled areas, it was never what you'd call a glamorous neighborhood, and was initially home to squatters and small homesteaders, the same folks who occupied much of the old Colorado River floodplain.

Those settlers, and successive waves of working-class households, left few traces; much of what the 1967 study considered a wholly blighted area was comprised of homes that were, at the time, only 20 to 30 years old. But 18 surviving homes on Rainey Street today date from the same 1890-1930 era as the Eastside neighborhoods to which in pre-interstate days Rainey was connected. And, like several of those neighborhoods, Rainey Street has since 1988 been listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

This designation throws a spanner in the works of any latter-day plan to clear Rainey Street of its homes; indeed, that was the intent of the activists who applied for the National Register listing. The historic district doesn't entirely shut down redevelopment. But even if the core of Rainey houses within the district boundaries were left alone, their existence constrains what property owners can do with the surrounding land. The city code restricts, in various ways, what you can build or operate next to or near property that is either zoned or used for single-family, and there's not much land in Rainey that isn't affected by these compatibility measures.

More importantly, the existence of a Neighborhood-with-a-capital-N in the middle of what would otherwise surely be densely packed downtown real estate is enough to scare off most mild-mannered developers -- especially since this neighborhood is largely Mexican-American and was for years a holy cause, notably for the coalition of activists we now call El Concilio, which claimed "the last Chicano neighborhood west of I-35" as its birthright, even after it was clear that Rainey Street didn't really want to be "saved" as badly as outsiders wanted to save it.

As with much of El Concilio's stomping grounds along Town Lake, Rainey Street used to be a lot more Anglo -- 40% in 1960, higher before then -- than the coalition's this-has-always-been- our-barrio rhetoric would imply. Of course, it was the Anglos who were more likely to pull up stakes during Rainey's 30-plus years of terminal neighborhood illness, though now -- and again like Eastside neighborhoods -- the ethnic balance is tilting back, with an influx of Anglo central-city types looking for affordability in the urban core.

Who Lives There

Among this number is Rainey Street's most famous resident, former council member and Save Our Springs Alliance director Brigid Shea, who with husband John Umphress and two sons lives on the corner of Rainey and Davis. (That is, most famous current resident. You'd be surprised at how many local luminaries have a Rainey Street address in their past.) "It's a neat little neighborhood, and some people would definitely like to keep living here, but they're in the minority," she says. "Even if you wanted to preserve the houses, Rainey Street will look dramatically different even in two or three years, and that reality is what's pushed people over the top."

Brigid Shea with husband John Umphress with son charlie

Former council member Brigid Shea with husband John Umphress and son Charlie in front of their home on Rainey Street.

photograph by Shelly Rutledge

Association president Maria Elena Bernhardt, daughter Eva

photograph by Shelly Rutledge

Clockwise from above: Rainey Street Neighborhood
Association president Maria Elena Bernhardt and her
daughter Eva; and Rainey Street kids circa 1981.

Rainey Street kids circa 1981

photograph by Will Van Overbeek

Shea is one of the last people you'd expect to be advocating for the de-preservation, if you will, of a historic working-class urban neighborhood, but "the majority of residents [are] interested in upzoning their properties and getting more money. John and I were about the only ones who wanted it to stay residential, [but] we were the newcomers and weren't about to tell our new neighbors what to do."

Soon they were not just behind, but out in front of their neighbors' cause. "We wanted people to understand the value of their property, with all the things being developed in the area, and [to] look for the best solution that would allow the longtime residents to get the best value for their land."

If this were a movie -- either Miracle on Rainey Street or Nightmare on Rainey Street, Part V, take your pick -- Shea would be one of the above-the-line stars. Director and screenwriter would be Bobby Velasquez, who has been working for 15 years to find the best deal for his family -- patriarch Roy Velasquez was the Roy of Roy's Taxi -- and his neighbors. "We've lived here for 35 years, but this is the reality," he says. "I just want to make sure the Hispanic people are not screwed on the deal."

Velasquez's goal for some time has been a combined offering by the neighbors en masse, and probably the actual consolidation of the properties. "I never really have liked to bother my neighbors, but they are interested in moving out and leaving something for their kids while they're alive," he says. "If they don't sell together, they're not going to get as much -- they'll get robbed by developers who flip the property three or four times. So everybody wants to stick together."

And what about the inevitable holdouts? "Nobody's been left out of these discussions -- the only ones who haven't been involved are the absentee landlords who just bought in for an investment," Velasquez says. "It would be more of a hurt to me if somebody who doesn't live here holds out, but if it were someone who lives here, I have to respect my neighbor. But they know what's going on."

The Developers Cometh

The producers of the Rainey Street saga's current installment would be Robert Knight and Perry Lorenz, the downtown landowners who hold big chunks of the Rainey area and even bigger visions for the future. "We originally proposed row houses, almost zero-lot-line, within the existing lot lines [of their parcel] at the south end of [the neighborhood]," says Lorenz. "That was the path we headed down until we realized there was sympathy for much more intense uses by the homeowners who knew they could get the same house, more money, and a better neighborhood somewhere else."

What Knight and Lorenz did -- which, in retrospect, may not have been such a wise idea -- is turn those "much more intense uses" into a tangible, if totally hypothetical, format. By now, everyone who's been involved in the Rainey saga has seen maps, rendered for Knight and Lorenz by staff at Graeber, Simmons, and Cowan, showing Rainey Street turned into a single major new development, covering dozens of wall-to-wall acres, with space for hotels, condos, entertainment, and that oft-hunted downtown beast, destination retail. (Think Galleria. Think Nordstrom's.) The existing street grid could be altered or could disappear entirely (see maps, p.26).

Now, do not reflexively gasp in horror here; it's hard to think of a major city -- even SmartGrown meccas like Portland, San Diego, Minneapolis -- that doesn't have something like this already. The places to put such a project in downtown Austin are few, and the New Downtown elite is nothing if not ready for bold new ideas. None of which means it's a good idea, but a Rainey mega-mall is not an outrageous idea either, at least not any more. (It would have been five years ago.)

Anyway, Lorenz and Knight take great pains to emphasize the fact that their maps are not real projects, just illustrations of what could be done with Rainey Street if it were master-planned. But the facts remain: If either they or the Rainey neighbors are to get absolute top-dollar for their land -- the recurring figure is $65 a square foot -- they're going to need downtown zoning (CBD) on all their consolidated property. Any developer -- who would almost certainly not be Lorenz and Knight -- who would buy 40-some acres of CBD-zoned land, in one piece, for that price -- a total of over $100 million -- is going to build very, very, very big. And a retail/entertainment/hotel complex makes more market sense than an office complex or the mother of all condo towers, since those sectors are hopping right now elsewhere in the urban core. (See "Rainey's Price Tag," below, for more on the real-estate economics of Rainey Street.)

This does not mean, however, that Lorenz and Knight's vision is the end goal of everyone on Rainey Street. It is indisputable that the sizable majority of Rainey property owners, including homeowners, support a planning process that leads to upzoning, probably to CBD. Beyond that, who sells, who buys, who builds, and what gets built on how many parcels is all undefined, and Velasquez, for one, envisions "office buildings, probably a hotel, and something to work with the MACC. We're not against the MACC."

The MACC Stance

Tomas Salas, Planning and Development Coordinator for the Mexican American Cultural Center

Tomas Salas, Planning and Development Coordinator for the Mexican American Cultural Center, stands on the future site of the building.

photograph by Shelly Rutledge

But the Mexican-American Cultural Center -- or, more precisely, its backers, since the MACC doesn't exist yet -- is most definitely against Lorenz and Knight's vision. Part of this opposition is easy to fathom; some of these Lorenz/ Knight maps show the MACC, and its 10 acres of lakefront land, incorporated into the project. One of them shows the MACC and the Austin Museum of Art (which was caught in its CSC shuffle when the renderings were made) combined into one facility as part of the project.

Now, to put it simply, the MACC is a politically sensitive subject, and one should not toy with it in such ways. And it's sensitive in the same way that Rainey Street has long been sensitive; even though El Concilio has so far stayed clear of the current fray, when all these people sit down at the charrette table in a few weeks or months, it'll likely be the MACC team whose position will be closest to the traditional El Concilio Rainey-must-stay line.

"We'd like to see the residents stay there, and I know that some don't want to, but some do," says the MACC's Tomas Salas. "I think there's a perception that the neighborhood is behind Knight's plan, [but] I don't know if the residents really know all that's going on. ... We definitely support a consistent plan (for the neighborhood) that we all have input in, but Robert Knight is very passionate about his vision and convinced that there's no other way. We can't just have his plan shoved down our throats -- there need to be other visions brought in as well. And that's the biggest obstacle right now to having something everyone can agree with."

Just as the Rainey neighbors and Lorenz and Knight have found common cause, the MACC has allied with Gordon Dunnaway, the Dallas developer whose application for downtown mixed-use zoning (DMU) -- a less intense category than CBD -- for the property at the far south end of Rainey, next to the MACC, brought Rainey Street back into the news. It's ironic that Dunnaway has become the lightning rod here, since everyone -- the MACC, Lorenz and Knight, Velasquez, whoever -- claims to really like his project, which combines lake-view condos with small-scale retail. "The new mantra is downtown housing, and Dunnaway has responded to that," says Lorenz. "I think it's a good project and a good idea, and it's exactly what I would have done."

illustration of Rainey Street Condominiums

Developer Gordon Dunnaway recently secured zoning approval for his Rainey Street Condominiums, an eight-story residential project housing 50-60 units, a roof garden, a fitness center, and banquet facilities. Rendering by EnviroPlan architects.

So why did Lorenz et al. fight the zoning change for a year, ultimately to no avail? One reason is that spot-zoning this one piece (it was formerly LO (limited office) like the low-end office buildings next to it on East Avenue) runs counter to the neighborhood's vision of upzoning through a Rainey Street master plan. "We're puzzled about the value of a planning process from which this major project has basically been exempted," says Shea. "It makes us want to reconsider our options." (Dunnaway owns another piece of land north of the present project, and has said he wants to be part of any neighborhood plan.)

The other reason is that, by allowing a major project at that site, the city has effectively eliminated the option of redrawing the street grid, a key element of Knight's vision. "It takes a pretty key piece out of the puzzle," Knight says. "It adds another couple of constraints, which I think are major constraints, but you work with what you have to work with."

For his part, Dunnaway emphasizes that his project "is a real deal -- not a speculative plan or drawing on a piece of paper that says maybe we'll move the streets, build this big thing, tear the houses down. The speculation involved in whatever else was going to happen here was way beyond my budget. It was purely the economics that forced me and continue to force me to go forward.

"I've always thought that what I want to do isn't incompatible with anyone else's vision for the neighborhood," Dunnaway continues. "I personally don't think it should be CBD -- I think it would be a great mixed-use neighborhood -- but I'm not opposed to it. I'm not a land planner; I'm just a guy who wouldn't do anything to hurt that neighborhood or the residents. I went forward because the city assured me that Smart Growth involved infill inner-city housing, and that's what this is about. It's not intended as a slap in the face to the neighborhood in any way."

All this together persuaded both the Planning Commission and City Council to not only approve Dunnaway's request, but to do so unanimously, overriding the valid petition in opposition to the project, presented by the Rainey neighbors. "It's a very difficult issue, and I was in a quandary," says Council Member Gus Garcia, "but I didn't think we needed to hold this development hostage so that we could do planning for someone else."

What Happens Next

So what happens now? In terms of a planning process, nobody knows yet, just that there will be one. "The question we have right now is what is the goal for this neighborhood," says city planning director Austan Librach, who has been tasked -- without additional resources or staff, naturally -- with the project. "The question of what staff can do or should do to help them attain that goal is still up in the air."

As with other downtown projects, Librach's first job will be to wade through all the previous planning for Rainey Street (see "Past Planning Efforts," p.26, for the historical highlights), a corpus that is full of reminders that none of these ideas -- single-family redevelopment, mixed use, or total CBD redevelopment -- is new. (Even the current craze for speed bumps and traffic circles is not new; traffic calming improvements on Rainey were proposed in 1984 and finally built last year.)

Back in April, Garcia had asked that Dunnaway's case be delayed 45 days to give the Rainey neighbors time to "examine the options that may be available to them." Those days came and went without the Rainey neighbors hearing anything from city staff. Now, while there's talk of the process beginning this month, it appears more likely that serious work would not commence until the new fiscal year (or at least until after the budget is adopted, since all other work is pushed aside during budget season).

"Right now, the issue with the planning process is credibility," says Knight. "If the city had really wanted to be involved in a planning effort down here, they would have made it a priority. My guess is that the city really doesn't want to be involved because of several hot-potato issues."

The city counters that -- in the words of Garcia's aide Paul Saldaña -- "we have to be involved, because so many of the projects affecting the neighborhood are city projects. If the outcome of the plan is that we do need to preserve single-family residential in this area, the city needs to make that happen, since we'll be reaping the benefits of more conventions, more traffic along Waller Creek, more programming and visitors to the MACC. At a minimum, the residents need to benefit as well, because they'll be assuming the burden of everything that happens there."

Bobby Velasquez, rainey street resident

Bobby Velasquez has lived in the Rainey Street neighborhood for over 40 years.

photograph by Shelly Rutledge

One could say the city should have ensured this 10 years ago, when the current Convention Center site was approved by the voters. Not that the attempt wasn't made; when Skidmore, Owings and Merrill did the site-selection study that brought the Palazzo Turistico to Rainey Street's back door, they were asked to produce an addendum with suggestions for Rainey Street. But that -- like most of the planning for the area around the center -- went on the shelf. "When there's a convention, it totally blocks us in," says Velasquez. "We just sit in our yards and watch the smog rise up off I-35."

Part of what Knight perceives as a credibility gap is really cognitive dissonance. Even though the idea of reinventing Rainey has been on the table for decades, it's so anathematic in Austin to displace single-family homes that nobody can believe a neighborhood may actually want to go commercial. "And they may be right," says Lorenz. "If we go down the [planning] path and find out that there's five people with big plans but everyone else really wants to leave the neighborhood alone, then that's the way it should be," he says. "The truth is our friend. If it isn't true that this is what people want, then I'm the first person to say hands off."

Even though visions for Rainey Street don't seem to vary as much as they did 15 years ago, they still vary, and nobody will be entirely happy with the plan that gets produced. But they'll be even less happy with nothing. "Simply spot-zoning the area, and letting the market take its course, could cause big, big, problems," says Garcia. "I'm trying to figure out how the city can help the neighbors get to their objective and protect their interests -- how best can we do this? I don't think anybody knows. And nobody has figured it out for 20 years. But it's a wonderful neighborhood, and everybody wants to make sure that we don't damage it any further or hurt its residents any more. I don't know how to succeed, but we can try."

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