Tweaking the ARA Plan
Will the Eastside's Future Be Worth the Wait?
It's been more than four years since the City Council blessed an ambitious urban-renewal plan designed as a guide for restoring what was once a vibrant corridor of commerce for East Austin's African-American community. The city was then on the verge of an unprecedented economic boom, and the general assumption was that some of that good fortune would, or should, rub off on East Austin -- specifically East 11th and 12th streets, the area targeted for redevelopment under the direction of the Austin Revitalization Authority.
But the boom came and went, leaving the area that held such promise four years ago looking pretty much unchanged -- save for a long-planned mixed-use project called Eleven East, between Waller Street and Curve on 11th Street, that finally kicked off early this year. Putting that disappointment behind them, city staff and ARA leaders will bring the same plan back to the council today (Thursday) seeking approval on a set of revisions to the existing project controls laid out in the original blueprint. At the same time, the council will be asked to award a $442,500 contract to the city's Urban Renewal Agency -- which in turn has a contract with the ARA as its agent -- to go toward property acquisition, relocation assistance, and other administrative expenses related to redevelopment efforts.
The proposal before the council calls for a soup-to-nuts assortment of changes and variances that, though they may look minor on paper, has major significance to those neighbors, developers, and landowners who would be impacted by the outcome. Some of the changes would increase the number of residential units and community parking spaces on some blocks and reduce commercial space on others. Michael Casias, a mixed-use developer who lives and does business in Central East Austin (and serves on the city Planning Commission), agreed to scale back the amount of commercial space on his project at 11th and Navasota streets to provide for the construction of 15 new housing units. Also, Casias will preserve and help renovate the Quickie Pickie convenience store, originally slated for the wrecking ball.
Council members are expected to vote on the revisions to the overall plan following a public hearing this evening that could include a healthy mix of favorable and unfavorable opinion. Some business owners and landholders -- collectively known as the 12th Street Property Owners Association -- say they are getting the short end of the stick in this deal, while neighborhood representatives generally support the plan on the condition that negotiations will continue to ensure its compatibility with the Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan adopted by the council in 2001, two years after it adopted the ARA urban-renewal plan. Still others have resigned themselves to backing the plan with the idea that some movement is better than no movement at all.
However, Richard Ferris, the most outspoken among the unhappy 12th Street landowners, argues that commercial-property owners are constrained by a mixed-use plan that puts town homes (to be built by the city's Neighborhood Housing department, which also oversees the city's agreements with the ARA) on the south side of the street and businesses on the north side. Ferris says that proposal works against his and others' long-held dream of turning 12th Street into a thriving commercial corridor, which would in turn enhance the value of their properties. His vision is to turn 12th Street into the gateway to the Capitol and Downtown, thus eliminating -- at least in spirit -- the I-35 barrier between East and West. "We have to get rid of the stigma that 12th Street is a high-crime area," he told ARA board members at a public hearing in June.
Similarly, Leonard and Minnie Mann, owners of Minnie's Beauty Salon at 12th and Waller streets, have spent more than two decades waiting for the revival of 12th St. When they opened their shop 23 years ago, they held firm to the belief that a steady progression of new businesses would follow. They renewed that hope when the city in 1996 created and charged the ARA with coordinating the redevelopment efforts (Leonard Mann was one of the ARA board's original members).
"We look like we've been in a war," Minnie Mann said of the dismal view from her shop. "They have not turned a piece of dirt on 12th Street, and it's making all of us look silly." She lays blame on the bureaucracy of the city and cites the size of the ARA board (more than 2 dozen members representing neighborhood, community, and business interests) for its lack of agility. "You can't get five people in one family to agree on anything, let alone 29 people."
Nevertheless, at least two board members representing different interests -- East Side Story director Larry Jackson and Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp. director Mark Rogers -- say they signed off on the revised plan on the belief that council's action would serve to reinforce ARA's mission to revitalize a neighborhood, thereby making good on ARA's long-used motto: "Here Comes the Neighborhood."