ARA Given Ultimatum on Redevelopment Plans
Either bid redevelopment projects as they were outlined in the city's original plan or city will seek outside partners to redevelop East 11th Street
The ARA appeared before the URB Monday night to ask for more time – possibly up to a year – to rework plans on Block 18. The block is just east of the Street-Jones and Snell buildings in the 1100 block of East 11th. The Victory Grill sits on part of the block, which the ARA wants to complete with a parking garage, a four-story office-over-retail building, and townhomes oriented toward Juniper Street. These changes will require a plan amendment and a number of waivers from the Planning Commission.
What the URB learned at its meeting Monday is the ARA had submitted a substantially incomplete proposal back in August, which lacked a number of key items, such as a site plan with preliminary city staff comments, proper vetting of any changes through various city commissions, preliminary construction plans, Texas Historical Commission approval, and even evidence of comments from surrounding neighborhoods.
ARA Executive Director Byron Marshall called the incomplete plans a "placeholder." "We didn't forget what was called for in the plan," Marshall told the URB in defense of the new plans. "It wasn't meant to be disrespectful in any way. It was meant to stimulate conversation." The first plans for the block were drawn up in 2001. In the intervening years, East Austin's real estate market exploded. On that score, Marshall is now proposing much denser development and additional affordable housing to answer the 1,000 new market-rate units going up in the neighborhood around Block 18.
The board did not appear inclined to wait another year to see ARA's complete plans for Block 18. But rejecting the ARA application outright is tricky. Such a maneuver would have stripped the ARA of all future development rights on the block. When it became apparent such a vote might take place, city liaison Van Jobe strongly encouraged the board to let both sides resolve their issues.
That sent the URB into a lengthy executive session. When it returned, the board agreed to extend the ARA's deadline for a plan on Block 18 to Nov. 30 but only under the development rights offered under Phase I. That would appear to quash ARA's desire for a longer timeline in order to create and finance denser development on the block. ARA can choose to submit under the proposed parameters or to walk away from the project. ARA board Chair Charles Urdy said his board would have to make that decision. In the meantime, the URB has begun drafting an open solicitation proposal to dispose of Block 16, the block on which Ben's Long Branch BBQ sits. The bid, when it is posted, will be open to all developers and not just the ARA.
Urdy said the disagreement over Block 18 has been a process issue. The ARA board has learned, as the group has moved through development deals, that the projects along East 11th and 12th streets must change. If Block 18 had been completed a year ago under the initial plans, it wouldn't have included affordable housing. "We need an approach that is rational and reasonable," Urdy said. "We need to understand how we can anticipate the needs of the community. We did not anticipate this need [for affordable housing] at all when we came up with the plan because it wasn't needed at the time."
This is not the only blow ARA suffered last week. A city audit, released Friday, shows the organization carrying $14 million in debt to only $1 million in assets. According to the audit, ARA's external auditor was not excessively alarmed by the debt, although the need for additional revenue was discussed with the ARA board.