The Austin Chronicle

Turning the Tide on the Eastside

By Tony CantĂș, August 14, 2015, News

Emboldened by a pair of recent victories against gentrification, Eastside community activists are poised to ask City Council this month for a moratorium on issuing new commercial development permits for the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood until they're able to revamp outdated neighborhood plans. They introduced the idea to the Planning Commission on July 28.

The proposal also calls for putting the brakes on zoning changes designed to accommodate commercial development and on music permits for venues in established neighborhoods. Bertha Delgado, president of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association, is particularly concerned about the redevelopment of the area that's bounded by Pleasant Valley, Cesar Chavez, I-35, and Fifth Street.

Delgado said she became more acutely aware of the brisk pace of commercial development in the Eastside enclave when she served on a neighborhood committee currently rewriting the land use code: "It gave me a bird's-eye view and made me realize that if we didn't demand to have more community-serving businesses, we are going to be in real trouble."

The hard-fought win in the East Side Hotel skirmish in particular pointed to the effectiveness of a united front, Delgado noted. The would-be hoteliers' permit application was rejected at the Planning Commission, following opposition from various neighborhood associations acting in concert (see "East Side Hotel Changes Course," July 31). Representatives from each of those groups met Aug. 5, to plot out strategy ahead of the Council presentation they hope to stage.

Edie Cassell, who is married to Alberto Martinez, chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, is also encouraging cooperation, particularly among members of the old guard, who are sometimes reluctant to risk relinquishing power they've long held in their specific sectors. "The relationships I'm trying to build are fragile," Cassell acknowledged. But the East Side Hotel raised the alert level across the community, convincing even the most reluctant to join the battle, she said. Yet this latest call to action wasn't sparked by the proposed hotel alone. The brisk commercial development along Rainey Street is a useful cautionary tale. And the Red Bluff neighborhood – which lies along the riverbank of the Colorado River stretching from East Cesar Chavez – is quickly becoming a darling of developers as well, including those planning an upscale hotel.

"Each of the separate neighborhood groups haven't been talking to each other in a way that's necessary to protect ourselves," Cassell said. "We don't trust the city planners who, we've discovered, are very pro-development and not as neighborhood-friendly as they pretend to be." To buttress her point, she points to the quasi-official name city staffers overseeing development have given the area: the Red Bluff Entertainment District. The moniker has been assigned even as residents struggle against displacement by rising property rates, she said.

"It's very arrogant of them," Cassell said of the rebranding by city officials. "They probably think this is an industrial area, and there are no residences there." Lustre Pearl, formerly a Rainey Street bar and restaurant, is scheduled to open a Red Bluff location. "One block away, there's an elementary school," Cassell said. "Three doors down, there's a church. It's going to be unbearable to live there, and they don't care. If we don't pool our resources and compare notes, we're going to get bulldozed. We don't stand a chance."

Without updated neighborhood plans (most were drafted in the Nineties), community advocates fear developers will continue to be granted virtually unfettered access. District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria endorses the idea of a moratorium. "I think we really need to slow things down," he said. "But it's going to be very difficult" to get a moratorium passed, he acknowledged. "They would have to convince not only me but five other people on the City Council. I just don't see the votes there."

The last time a similar measure was passed was more than a decade ago at the urging of former Mayor Gus Garcia, Renteria noted. Cassell is undeterred. "This is just a first step to get the attention of the city and say we don't have a comprehensive plan. No one else is going to advocate for us."

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