Should East 12th Street be a commercial corridor, or a residential promenade? You'd think that after nearly five years of planning and debate under the auspices of the Austin Revitalization Authority, this fairly basic issue would be resolved. But not yet -- although ARA board members and 12th Street property interests are working to beat the clock and find a compromise.
The problem is this: When the ARA was first hatched in 1995 -- the latest installment in a two-decades-long revitalization effort for the old East End -- its mission was to bring commercial life back to East 11th and 12th streets. There followed a few years of angry conflict between the ARA's supporters, foremost among them former council member Eric Mitchell, and the neighborhoods surrounding 11th and 12th, over exactly what this mission meant.
After the city of Austin stepped in and mandated that the ARA change its ways and the composition of its board, it produced a redevelopment plan that made East 11th mostly commercial but allowed a substantial amount of residential on East 12th. This was mostly to accommodate the ill-starred SCIP II publicly funded housing development known as Anderson Hill, which lies in the triangle between 11th, 12th, and I-35. The conceptual conflict between Anderson and the ARA -- a residential enclave stuck between two high-traffic corridors -- has been around for a while, but since both projects enjoyed Mitchell's patronage, as long as he was around it was papered over.
In order for Anderson Hill and its controversial developer, Gene Watkins, to respond to civic and neighborhood concerns and secure necessary federal funds, the project was expanded to include not only single-family homes but townhouses on 12th Street itself. These homes were duly included in the ARA's redevelopment plan, which is a bona fide urban renewal plan that property owners must follow. (As you may remember, SCIP II -- whose relationship with the city has long been fractious -- got its funding cut off a few months back, which leaves the fate of those unbuilt townhouses in limbo, even though some of them have already been sold.)
Whether through accident or design, it was at this point that 12th Street commercial property owners decided that a long stretch of Anderson houses on the street was not going to be acceptable. Over the last three months, the rival interests have struggled to reach common ground; at the last community meeting on the subject on Oct. 18, a delegation of Anderson homeowners and supporters was, in the opinion of others in attendance, "rude and disruptive."
The no-brainer solution is to change the SCIP townhomes into mixed-use developments with office or retail below and apartments above. But buy-in to that change -- which would require both rezoning the property over the objections of its owners, the Anderson Community Development Corporation, and amending the ARA redevelopment plan -- does not appear imminent, even though right now Anderson can't build the homes it originally envisioned. And the clock is ticking -- all sides, including the city of Austin, want this matter resolved before the area goes through neighborhood planning starting in January. Otherwise, that supposed step forward will be bogged down with a problem that's been brewing for years.