End of the Road for Eastside Urban Renewal?

Urban Renewal Board doesn't relish extending life of ARA

Momentum is building to end the city's development agreement with the Austin Revitalization Authority.
Momentum is building to end the city's development agreement with the Austin Revitalization Authority. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

So what are the odds that the tri-party agreement between the Austin Revitalization Authority, the Urban Renewal Board, and the city of Austin will survive past the end of October, when it's due to expire? Apparently not high, if one judges by comments last week from members of the URB.

The agreement, which makes ARA the lead developer for trying to revitalize and protect the culture of the East 11th and East 12th corridors, has been maligned by many for failing to deliver on that goal, as ARA has accomplished a few projects on 11th but very little on 12th Street. Back in April, the Robertson Hill and Swede Hill neighborhood associations called for an end to the deal, in which the city provides substantial operational funding to the ARA.

More recently, URB Chair Ben Sifuentes said he's done with the tri-party and even thinks the URB itself, which oversees the 11th and 12th streets project, should go.

"The URB and the tri-party agreement didn't work," Sifuentes told the online city politics newsletter In Fact Daily. "Why do we need it? Why do we have it? Do away with them. The Urban Renewal Agency's sole power is eminent domain, and we've already gotten the land that we've gotten, and it can't be developed right now."

Sifuentes told In Fact Daily that protecting the area's culture has become a moot point now that the area has become heavily gentrified, and natural market forces should be allowed to take over, as has happened along East Fifth and Sixth streets.

Another URB member, former Chronicle news staffer Mike Clark-Madison, at least partially agreed and said similar sentiments are held by other members. "We really have to ask ourselves and the community: What is the best way to move forward, given that the ARA is unlikely to develop any new projects for some time and might not be able to for a couple of years?," Clark-Madison told the Chronicle. Both the ARA and real estate experts at a recent community forum said that the current economic climate has slowed development everywhere and that the Eastside would likely be even harder hit than most places.

"The dream of restoring the old East End is dead, done," he said. "Right now, there is no support for renewing the tri-party agreement on the URB."

However, he disagreed with the notion of doing away with the URB itself. "We may need an urban renewal structure in other areas of the city," Clark-Madison said. "But it may not be the current URB."

The ultimate decisions on those questions lie with City Council. "We need to keep supporting redevelopment of East 11th and 12th," said Council Member Chris Riley. "But the present tri-party agreement may not be the best structure for that effort." Council Member Sheryl Cole sounded less certain. "I don't know if the tri-party agreement will be renewed," she said. "There are several complicating factors. ... It's a little early in the process to make that call.

"I think it's fair to say there has not been the redevelopment anticipated on 11th and 12th streets, but it's also fair to say there has not been the redevelopment anticipated at the Domain [a city-subsidized retail center in North Austin], and nobody brings that up. These have been down years, and to blame all that on the ARA I don't think is fair, but to not recognize they could have done a better job is not fair either."

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