Deadlocked Over Density

Neighbors say ARA plan clashes with existing homes, businesses

Deadlocked Over Density
Illustration by Peat Duggins

To say that the Austin Revitalization Author­ity's relationship with its East Austin neighbors and the larger city has been rocky dramatically understates the history. Since its inception in the mid-Nineties, the nonprofit development agency created by the city to spur economic growth along East Austin's 11th and 12th Street corridors has fended off persistent accusations of incompetence, cronyism, and corruption. In response, authority President Byron Marshall, its board leadership, and other supporters have regularly returned the favor, accusing critics of racism, liberal paternalism, or simply bad faith, and have blasted the local media for not reporting "ARA's accomplishments."

Yet whatever the authority's accomplishments, they never seem to arrive without long delay, bitter controversy, neighborhood opposition, and a common perception that the whole process might have been much better managed.

The ARA's latest bump in the road of neighborly relations comes with a proposal, currently wending its way through the city process, to increase the allowable density of a major mixed-use project on the 1100 block of 11th Street, commonly known in the plan as Block 18. The ARA insists that increasing the density above what it originally proposed in 2001 is necessary if the project is to bring in enough revenue to allow it to stand on its own. Predictably, the immediate neighbors and their associations aren't happy and have raised numerous objections. Among the complaints, offered singly or in combination, are that intensifying the use of the blocks to the ARA's desired level is in excess of the agency's mandate, that the additional height risks creating a "canyon effect" down the middle of a residential neighborhood, that traffic will increase insupportably, and that existing (or historic) businesses, such as the venerable Victory Grill, will get lost under the proposed four-story project. The neighbors – particularly the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood, Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association, and the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods – insist that they do not oppose density but argue that intensity of use must not overwhelm the surrounding residential area. The groups and ARA have negotiated for changes, with both sides saying they've come close to agreement, but no final compromise has yet been reached.

Then and Now

ARA President Byron Marshall
ARA President Byron Marshall

The changes ARA proposes would require modifications to the city's 11th and 12th Streets Urban Renewal Plan and the East 11th Street Neighborhood Conservation Combining District – hence the proposal's current journey through the boards and commissions process, which ultimately will land it for approval before the City Council. Earlier this summer, a bevy of neighborhood association and business representatives showed up to plead against the changes before the board of the Urban Renewal Agency, which led to the board voting against recommendation to the council. The proposal, with the support of city staff, is now set to go before the Planning Commission on Sept. 23. Whatever the recommendations of the boards and commissions, they are not necessarily binding upon the council.

ARA's plans for Block 18, as outlined in a May 27 letter to the council and city manager, include a 66,000-square-foot, four-story mixed-use building; a three-story apartment building in which all 24 to 36 units are affordable at 40-60% of median family income; the rehabilitation of the house once known as the East Room, formerly a historic nightclub; and underground parking, including 58 free public parking spaces. The required changes to the URP and NCCD would include increasing allowable height limits and floor-area ratios (the amount of total square footage combining all floors vs. the ground area of the lot), increasing the housing units allowed and removing limits on their geographic orientation, increasing maximum square footage, changing parking requirements, and allowing greater maximum building coverage. (See chart below for details.) Most importantly, the ARA wants substantial office space above the ground-level retail on 11th.

So why is the original ARA concept no longer good enough? "The proposed modifications ... are realistic responses to market conditions that have changed since ARA's original proposal for development of Block 18 was developed in 2001," ARA board chairman (and former City Council member) Charles Urdy wrote in the letter to council. "As Phase I of ARA's 11th Street development project (the existing mixed-use buildings in the 1000 block of East 11th Street) was beginning construction in 2003, the market demand for office space fell off dramatically, which put plans for development of the second phase – Block 18 – on hold. The forecast for office space is now more optimistic, but greater density is still required given rising costs and the desire for mixed-use development, affordable housing and community parking space along this transit corridor."

When the plan came before the Urban Renewal Agency board, most neighbors strongly disagreed, assailing both the plan and the ARA. In a useful summation of the more general objections, the Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood, representing the area to the south of 11th Street, sent a letter to the URA stating that the space above the retail should be primarily residential because more office space will simply bring in more traffic. GAIN also objected to early design proposals, saying the proposed architecture is too contemporary and "not reflective of the architectural styles and elements traditionally associated with this corridor and neighborhood," criticizing the lack of open space and arguing that the "affordable housing" wouldn't be affordable enough for "traditional" (i.e., low-income) residents of East Austin nor large enough for families. GAIN also objects fundamentally to the notion of more density on the corridor, insisting that the corridor is already zoned for sufficient density and that the private sector has stayed comfortably within current limits.

Above all else, though, is a lack of confidence in the ARA to get things done. "Finally, there is a profound sense that the ARA is not motivated by a desire to do what is best for the surrounding community," the GAIN letter concludes. Pointing to an Austin American-Statesman article published shortly before, the letter says, "There is a similar understanding, enforced by its past history ... [that] the ARA does not implement or manage projects well." The letter posited that the city could get better results if it put development of the block up for bids by more than just the ARA. (It's worth noting that some members of GAIN also sit on the board of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp., a nonprofit group devoted to Eastside revitalization, although there is no formal connection between the organizations.)

Push and Pull

These artist renderings from Austin Revitalization Authority – which ARA President Byron Marshall stresses are only a draft, not a final plan – show how the Block 18 proposal might look if the ARA's suggested modifications are approved by the City Council.
These artist renderings from Austin Revitalization Authority – which ARA President Byron Marshall stresses are only a draft, not a final plan – show how the Block 18 proposal might look if the ARA's suggested modifications are approved by the City Council.

Not all neighbors agree. Artist Nailah Sankofa very much views the conflict along racial and gentrification lines. An Austin resident who is African-American, she expressed concerns about standing up for "my people" in both URA meetings and to the Chronicle and said, "I have a problem with all of the white folks complaining about the community and the ARA." While she says she has her own issues with the entity, she gives the ARA some credit: "East Austin was falling apart, and somebody had to do something."

Others had a mixed perspective: OCEAN member Cindy Widner (who, we should note, is also the managing editor of the Chronicle) says she's fine with the increased density and height on the corridor but worries that the scale will overwhelm the historic Victory Grill, with which it shares the block. She does agree with her neighbors that office space would do little to enhance the corridor's nighttime vitality. Sounding very much like GAIN, she wrote in a letter to the URA, "It is being proposed that the project be developed by a publicly funded agency with a track record of poor-to-mediocre performance filling office space via methods other than city leasebacks and [a poor record of] attracting a critical level of retail to the area in a timely and sustainable fashion."

Victory Grill CEO Eva Lindsey says she has short-term concerns with access to the club and longer-term worries about bringing tourism to the area. The lot (owned by the ARA) on which the project is planned is currently vacant and often serves as an event venue known as Kenny Dorham's Backyard. "We need that lot access for musicians," she says. "I need that space. I refuse to be blocked in, all the way around.

"I'm willing to negotiate," Lindsey says, but she insists she cannot accept the development project as it now stands. Lindsey says she proposed an 80-bed hotel for the property which would feed customers to her club, which she describes as "the centerpiece of cultural development for Central East Austin."

Marshall says his organization has tried to consider neighborhood needs and potential modifications, but ultimately, ARA needs clearer direction from the neighborhood within a context that will be financially workable.

"We're not interested in jamming this down people's throats," Marshall says. "That's something I want to make clear. We can build what folks want, but it requires a lot more subsidy to do that. The building that we're proposing right now, after having talked to commercial lenders, is something that they can fund. If you add more affordable housing to it, if you insist on the parking but don't put money in to pay for the parking, then the project will not work. Or if they want to subsidize the additional parking, we can make that work. I just don't think the council is going to come up with the kind of money it would take to make this project what folks want it to be."

The venerable Victory Grill at 11th and Waller. Compare the current backdrop of trees above with what might happen under an ARA proposal (in the artist rendering above, the Victory Grill is in the lower left side of the aerial diagram).
The venerable Victory Grill at 11th and Waller. Compare the current backdrop of trees above with what might happen under an ARA proposal (in the artist rendering above, the Victory Grill is in the lower left side of the aerial diagram).

What this project will finally be is a tough guess. As said, the recommendations of boards and commissions are not binding upon the City Council, which has been known to reject them before. Some members might share the perspective of URA Chair Kevin Cole – who, as the husband of Council Member Sheryl Cole, certainly has unique insight into the council's thinking – who said he just wanted to get something done when he cast the lone vote in ARA's favor. Noting that the Urban Renewal Plan expires in 2018, he said: "Nothing will happen on this block until after 2010 without the ARA proposal moving forward. ... This motion [to deny the ARA's requests] would kill any hope of doing something unless the council ignores us. We'll just keep meeting to meet."

But the City Council also has pressure to listen to voters, and some very active ones stand in opposition. "Neighbors and business groups are all against this plan," said URA Commissioner Edward McGarrahan before the vote. "We need to find a way to give the community what they want. This has to be a joint venture between the ARA and the community."

The Players

ARA Austin Revitalization Authority

URA Urban Renewal Agency

URP Urban Renewal Plan

GAIN Guadalupe Association for an Improved Neighborhood

OCEAN Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods

NCCD Neighborhood Conservation and Combining District

Variances: ARA Seeks to Build Up and Out

These are the major changes ARA wants to ink into its existing blueprint. The proposal goes to the Planning Commission Sept. 23, followed by a trip to City Council.

Height50 feetIncrease to 53 feet
Floor-area ratio0.96Increase to 1.4
HousingUp to 10-15 townhomes oriented toward Juniper StreetIncrease to up to 36 units of low-income multifamily housing on Juniper. Allow housing along East 11th (no restriction on type or number of units)
CommercialUp to 40,000-48,000 square feetIncrease maximum square footage to 100,000 for entire block

The increase in allowable height and floor-area ratio will allow the project to grow from three stories to four.

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Austin Revitalization Authority, ARA, Urban Renewal Agency, Victory Grill, Byron Marshall, City Council

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