What Part of 'No' Don't You Understand?

12th Street corridor residents oppose convalescent center

A conceptual rendering of the proposed Victoria Gardens project. Representatives of the company stressed that this is merely a preliminary sketch, pending neighborhood input, and said they may end up putting retail across the entire first floor.
A conceptual rendering of the proposed Victoria Gardens project. Representatives of the company stressed that this is merely a preliminary sketch, pending neighborhood input, and said they may end up putting retail across the entire first floor. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Gardens)

For some time now, East Austin residents and the Austin Revitalization Authority have sought – sometimes together, more often at odds – to cure what ails the once-vibrant East 12th Street corridor. Last week at the Carver Library, a company from the Dallas-Fort Worth area suggested that 12th needs a nurse. Or several of them.

Victoria Gardens, which operates several nursing home and residential care facilities in the Metroplex, pitched its proposal for a three-story "convalescent center" facility, featuring retail on the ground level, to 12th Street area residents, including neighborhood association representatives. The total project would be about 50,000 square feet, with 130 to 138 beds, and anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 square feet of retail. The project would need a zoning change from City Council. Reactions from neighbors seemed to be generally negative.

"It's been a long time coming that we have an opportunity to do something that is exceptional in our industry, bring something to a community that has been designated by the Department of Aging and Disability as an underserved, minority community," said Bill Thurman, the vice president of business development for Victoria Gardens. "We like the idea that we're primarily Medicare- and Medicaid-funded and that we can bring something exceptional to the community in an exceptional location." Thurman said that being near Brackenridge and St. David's hospitals is a driving factor in the proposal. "Being in proximity to a major acute care setting is important to us," he said.

"We want to move away from this type of a development," Thurman said – gesturing to photographs of Victoria Gardens' more traditional suburban facilities – "to this" – pointing to a rendering that, at least externally, looks like the vertical mixed-use style of development popping up in Central Austin. "We didn't know it was a hotbed of contention; we just thought it was a nice setting."

What Part of 'No' Don't You Understand?

But of course, ever since the ARA was created in 1996, East 11th and 12th has been one of the most fiercely disputed areas of town (see "What's Next for the ARA?," Aug. 7).

"For 12 years we've been promised ARA would revitalize 12th Street," said Casey Monahan, who lives in Swede Hill, the neighborhood to the north of 12th Street. Specific­al­ly, said Monahan and others, they've been promised retail with mixed-income residential above it. "I'm really curious about what kind of retail you're going to attract to a senior care center that would also be of interest to folks like me who've lived in that neighborhood."

"We're not interested in creating a medical corridor," said Swede Hill's Tracy Witte.* "We're interested in creating a vibrant, mixed-use corridor."

Thurman emphasized that the meeting was for the neighbors to give input and suggestions to Victoria Gardens to make the project better, but a Robertson Hill resident said: "You're nice people, but I don't think this building is the kind of mixed-use plans that people had. ... We sent that information to ARA, and now some of us have come to this meeting to say it again. ... How many times do we have to say that this just isn't what we want to see?"

"I'm not going to be an aggressive bulldog, so you're not going to have to fight me tooth and nail," said Thurman. "You can slam the door on us any time, right? So what does it hurt to talk to us?"

Newly appointed interim ARA Director Greg Smith tried to deflect some of the anger toward his organization by pointing out that ARA has not yet signed on to be a partner in the project – a decision that will be discussed at ARA's next board meeting on Sept. 15 – and that Victoria Gardens could push on with or without ARA involvement. "Part of our role is, if a project is in this community, we notify the neighbors," Smith said. "We just facilitated this meeting."

[Editor's note: In the original, print version of this article, this quote from Tracy Witte was attributed to a different audience member, while the following quote, said by a Robertson Hill resident, was mistakenly attributed to Witte.]

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Austin Revitalization Authority, Victoria Gardens, Bill Thurman, Swede Hill, 12th Street corridor

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