Can MACC and 70 Rainey Coexist?

Community leaders fear encroaching development, parkland dedication

Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center
Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (Photo courtesy of City of Austin)

On April 6, a press advisory from New York City-based Sackman Enterprises was sent out, asking readers to "please find below a release about an exciting new development in Austin, Texas" – that is, the imminent construction of 70 Rainey, a 35-story luxury condominium project to be built in the heart of the Rainey Street ­district.

But for Latino community leaders, the news is anything but exciting. The tower will be built directly across from the Mexican American Cultural Center. Con­cerns center not only on commercial encroachment, but fears that the MACC's very existence might be in jeopardy, given the lack of parkland designation for the museum complex, which would protect it from the possibility of being sold to an outside developer. "The community is still of the opinion that one day we'll wake up and read in the newspaper that the city of Austin put the MACC property up for sale," said Paul Saldaña, co-founder of the Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, in a recent interview. Also at issue is a small lot – a quarter of an acre's worth of city-owned land at 64 Rainey, fronting the MACC on River Street – that community leaders have long been trying to get dedicated as parkland.

The site has been the scene of past battles over commercial development. Three years ago, another developer, Riverside Resources, had designs on the land in proposing a similar project. Council hearings were so heated that Riverside Resources opted to extricate itself from the skirmish by selling the property to Sackman, Saldaña recalled, relishing memories of that victory. In the heat of battle, Hispanic leaders' ire was raised further when the plot of city-owned land located at the entry to the hallowed MACC was put up for sale.

"The previous developer actually wanted to purchase 64 Rainey Street," Saldaña said. "And this is where it gets political: Even though it is land contiguous to the MACC, the MACC board and the Latino community were never informed by the city of Austin that they were putting that land up for sale. We learned that by accident when we saw an ad in the paper soliciting bids."

Ultimately, City Council voted down the idea of selling the municipally owned parcel in a 4-3 vote. Theories have since arisen that the intent of the sale was to relieve the tax burden for the city, while helping shore up budget shortfalls for the Waller Creek Tunnel project on adjacent property. And years after the contentious hearings about the future of the city-owned property, the parkland designation is yet to be bestowed on the property by city leaders.

Ricardo Soliz, Parks and Recreation Department division manager for planning & development, wrote in an email to the Chronicle, "The MACC is not dedicated parkland. The MACC board has requested both the MACC and 64 Rainey Street be dedicated parkland. The Parks Department has been waiting to complete a survey of the MACC, which was completed in February 2015. The item was further delayed due to the new Council's request to delay any real estate items until late spring or summer."

But even lacking a parkland buffer, the feared sale is implausible, Soliz assured: "Selling of the MACC is highly unlikely," he wrote. "Approximately $20 million of bond funding have been spent on the MACC facility. The City Council adamantly opposed the selling of 64 Rainey Street, city-owned property, to a private investor. I would think selling the MACC would be out of the realm of possibilities."

For its part, Sackman has vowed to cooperate with concerned community members. C.J. Sackman, local director of development (also see "Council," p.14), wrote in an email to the Chronicle that he agreed with community leaders about transforming the city-owned land into parkland, and had reiterated support for the parkland vision at a recent MACC board meeting. He wrote, "We have had preliminary conversations with the city to discuss the viability of utilizing 64 Rainey St. for our construction staging. In consideration for the usage of the property during our construction (estimated 18-24 months), we made a presentation to the MACC Advisory Board on April 15th that included: a commitment to collaboration with the community to design a park on-site; contribute funds toward the design and park installation; and we committed to its maintenance."

Soliz outlined what Sackman is seeking as it negotiates the landscape of stakeholders: "Sackman is requesting: 1) 25-foot 'no build zone' and 2) 4 feet of 64 Rainey St. to widen the alleyway on the west side of the property, which could be used as an easement; 3) the use of 64 Rainey St. for construction staging for two years."

Sackman vowed to be cooperative: "The MACC Advisory Board is scheduled to reconvene in May to hopefully make a recommendation to the city. While this board does not have final say on the matter, we'd certainly like to have its support." Still, members of the Latino community – already feeling besieged by brisk commercial encroachment on the working-class – remain skeptical. Consequently, Saldaña and others have adopted a trust-but-verify posture: "Because it's not dedicated parkland, developers will still have their eyes on it," Sal­daña said. "Until the city does that, we'll continue to have threats."

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Mexican American Cultural Center, MACC, 70 Rainey, City Council, Paul Saldaña, Sackman Enterprises

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