Rainey Street, Ready to Go

Neighbors weigh in on compromise plan to transform Downtown neighborhood

Consider the similarities between the Hyde Park and Rainey Street neighborhoods. Both are part of the historic fabric of the Austin community, filled with homes that are significant within the context of both history and architecture. But while Hyde Park residents have defended their neighborhood tooth and nail against encroachment, many residents of the Rainey neighborhood – in the southeast corner of Downtown – can't get out of their houses fast enough.

Those who can afford to preserve, do. Those who can't afford to preserve, won't, especially when they've seen the big dollars developers will throw down for their land. This "reverse gentrification" will drive the Historic Landmark Commission nuts next week when it hears the city's proposal to rezone the neighborhood for commercial development and move a dozen of its turn-of-the-century homes to a historic enclave, possibly near the Mexican-American Cultural Center at the foot of Rainey Street itself along Town Lake, which will break ground in January.

Council Member Raul Alvarez, along with city planners George Adams and Greg Guernsey and Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, met with Bobby Velasquez and about four dozen Rainey Street neighbors on Tuesday night. After two decades of fighting for zoning changes, Velasquez – whose family has been a Rainey Street fixture for generations – is still skeptical, but he leads a group of residents who are determined to cash out of their homes and move on with their lives.

Chief among those who support the zoning change is John Umphress, husband of former Council Member Brigid Shea, themselves former residents of the neighborhood. Umphress scolded the city for not proposing to move all Rainey property up to Downtown zoning (CBD or DMU), rather than offering a CS overlay (intense commercial zoning, but less intense than Downtown) and dangling CBD as a carrot for those developers willing to preserve trees, offer Great Streets amenities, and provide affordable housing so the neighborhood preserves its mixed-income status.

"I'm against this hybrid of CS-to-CBD for the reasons you said," Umphress told the city planners, adding that too many hoops would make it difficult for developers to assemble property. "There's a big spread between CS and CBD." Alvarez responded that the zoning was a compromise among the various parties at the table; the city's goal is not to simply enable a sell-off, but to try to also appease those concerned with preserving the history of the neighborhood (listed in the National Register of Historic Places), and to maintain some zoning controls to protect those who want to remain, or who want to live there in the future. All of those things will be important to gather a majority of support on the City Council, Alvarez said.

Many in the audience were ready to sell out, including an elderly Rotarian in the back of the room who was still unhappy the city had zoned his property historic back in 1985. Others were concerned about the potential expansion of I-35 and what it would mean in terms of condemning property along the edge of the neighborhood. And Georgia Leggett, who owns two houses in the neighborhood, wants to haul her historic property out of Rainey entirely and into the countryside.

The Rainey Street plan goes to the Historic Landmark Commission and Downtown Commission next week. City staff will present the plan to the Zoning and Platting Commission and the Planning Commission in early September. The ordinance should end up at the City Council in early October.

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Rainey Street, historic preservation, Steve Sadowsky, CBD, DMU, CS, George Adams, Greg Guernsey, Raul Alvarez, John Umphress, Mexican-American Cultural Center, Bobby Velaaquez, Georgia Leggett

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