The Long Story of East 11th and 12th Streets Takes a Turn
Austin's historically black neighborhood continues to stand at the crossroads of growth
Dr. Charles Urdy, at 86, can still remember the names of long-gone nightclubs along East 11th Street. He studied chemistry at Samuel Huston College in the 1950s and spent his evenings hopping from one club to another. "A lot of those places, Charlie's Playhouse, the Deluxe Hotel, the Victory Grill, they were frequented by students," he said, ticking off the biggest spots on the street. "I went to all those places all the time. That's where I met Louis Armstrong – at the Lawson's Ice Cream Parlor. He was staying at the Deluxe Hotel."
The segregated neighborhood that Urdy knew – the historic home of Austin's African American community – was a city within a city, with strong churches, schools, and black-owned businesses. "It was our world, and most of it was between 11th and 12th street," said the future five-term City Council member and mayor pro tem.
Urdy moved away from the area after getting a doctorate; he was gone for a decade. "By the time I came back to Austin in '72, things had really started to deteriorate," he said. "It was just heartbreaking." Desegregation, begun in the mid-Sixties, had wrecked black businesses across the country as African Americans began spending money outside their traditional neighborhoods. Businesses closed, the buildings went vacant, and blight set in. "It had gotten to be so bad that folks would not go down 11th Street – it was like a combat zone," said Urdy. "Some folks were accosted in broad daylight going down the street. All of those little [former] clubs were nothing but havens for drug dealers and prostitutes."
To keep the buildings from being misused, many were demolished. By the late 1970s, most of the nightclubs Dr. Urdy remembers were torn down, the rubble hauled away. They were empty lots that became, in city of Austin lingo, "parcels."
A New Vision for East Austin
Greg Smith was a staffer in Austin's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department in the mid-Nineties. He's been around since the beginning of the revitalization effort in Central East Austin. You could say he was there before the beginning. "My shop in Neighborhood Housing became responsible for about 20 parcels of land that the city owned on 11th Street," Smith said. "Around 1994, 1995, something like that ... I started preparing to dispose of these 20 parcels."
Before he could create the request for proposal to sell off the lots, Eastside politicos found out about them. They stopped the sales and held meetings to get the community involved in their development. They organized themselves as the Austin Revitalization Authority, a group of African American leaders and neighborhood residents, led by Urdy. With the city's consent they mediated the sessions that produced the East 11th and 12th Street Community Redevelopment Plan – better known as the Urban Renewal Plan.
Harold McMillan was one of many who sat around tables with the ARA. "I have participated in I can't tell you how many city work groups and planning efforts that have ended up producing really cool plans," he said. The artist and activist had moved over from Clarksville, where he had started the Clarksville Jazz Festival, to be close to the African American community on the Eastside. Night after night with the ARA, he worked to sculpt a neighborhood that would embrace culture and art.
The Urban Renewal Plan was finally completed and adopted at the end of 1999. "I don't know if you've looked at the original plan lately, but I think it's on page seven," said McMillan. "There's a couple of good paragraphs that it's like – Oh, man! I'd love to live in that neighborhood." Page seven (it's actually page five) reads: "East 11th Street has been conceptualized as [a] higher-intensity, mixed-use development ... a dynamic entertainment/retail/housing area [with] restaurants, nightclubs, clothing stores, and antique stores."
The Urban Renewal Plan was designed to cover two areas: East 11th Street from the highway to Rosewood and East 12th Street from the highway to Poquito, one block past Chicon, where Sam's BBQ is. East 11th was designated an entertainment and shopping hub. East 12th was envisioned as a street of small businesses, offices, and new and existing single-family homes. The city was able to draw down federal loan financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development thanks to the plan, and created what was called the Tri-Party Agreement.
The "parties" of the Tri-Party Agreement were the city, the ARA, and the Urban Renewal Board, a dormant agency revived for purposes of the agreement, which held the title on the properties on East 11th and 12th, had eminent domain authority to get more, and was run by the city. The agency had been used in the Sixties and Seventies to take entire blocks of land from residents in East Austin to create parks, schools, hospitals, and more. That displacement, called "urban removal" by those forced to sell their homes at unfair prices, was something city leaders stressed would not happen again.
The Tri-Party Agreement laid out the division of responsibilities: The ARA would be the builders. The URB would buy and sell land and make sure the ARA followed the plan. The city would oversee both. The ARA was given $250,000 a year to do its work – more than 10 times what any other Eastside community organizations were getting at the time. All agreed the payments would last only until money from the developments made the ARA self-sustaining.
In its first years, the arrangement was a big success. Smith watched as the ARA cleaned up 11th, upgraded sewers and water utilities, and buried power lines with help from Capital Metro, who paid for the new streetscape. He helped the ARA untangle complex federal regulations so they could bring in the Street-Jones and Snell office buildings, collectively known as Eleven East (Smith's own NHCD offices soon relocated to the Street-Jones building). The Haehnel Building, a survivor of the neighborhood's earliest days that had become a home to drug addicts and prostitutes, was rehabbed and turned into offices. Decorative streetlamps, wide sidewalks, a gateway arch, and the Urdy Plaza, with a now-beloved tile mosaic of neighborhood scenes and leaders, including Urdy, welcomed those who ventured east along 11th Street.
Smith retired from the city in 2005. "At my retirement party – talk about singing 'Kum Ba Yah' – we had community folks, a couple hundred folks in the conference room in this building we just moved into, had a big celebration down at City Hall. I thought the train had left the station, and there was nothing that was going to slow down the revitalization."
Stuck Between Past and Future
Almost immediately, the train jumped the tracks. Very little was accomplished after Smith left. Various theories have been advanced for the breakdown: the tech bust of the early 2000s (and the housing bust later in the decade), distrust between the city and the ARA, the inability of the ARA to bring in enough money from its investments. Whatever it was, after executing a deal for what would become the East Village complex (behind Quickie Pickie, whose own redevelopment came later) the projects stopped. The URB treaded water, waiting for the ARA – its preferred developer, as laid out in the Tri-Party Agreement – to bring forward a plan that worked, and publicly blamed the ARA for the inaction. Meanwhile, the ARA was still getting the $250K a year. Finally, in 2010 the city dropped them and scrapped the Tri-Party Agreement. It had been five years with no major projects completed. The URB was kept alive to sell off the few properties it still held. Through it all, beyond a couple of minor projects, nothing substantial had gotten done on 12th Street.
But on 11th, on those properties not controlled by the URB or ARA, the market was running amok. As the ARA's efforts stalled out, new private enterprises came in – white ones – and took the places of the street's former black-owned businesses seemingly overnight. Ben's Long Branch became Franklin; down the street the Dandelion Cafe opened, then became Blue Dahlia; the old Longbranch Inn was reborn and later became Nickel City; Gene's Po'Boys (housed in what in Dr. Urdy's youth had been the neighborhood drugstore) became Hillside Farmacy. The businesses thrived, filled with newcomers enthusiastic about the changes.
Longtime residents felt differently. UT professor Eric Tang, who has studied East Austin gentrification for a decade, interviewed half of the neighborhood's households in 2018. On average, they have lived in the area for 38 years; 93% said they don't patronize the new businesses. More to the point, residents say they now feel invisible in their own neighborhood. Many have left. Tang has numbers for the displacement and they are shocking: Between 2000 and 2010, black residents in the Central East Austin neighborhoods flanking East 11th and 12th streets decreased by 60%, Latinx residents by 33%. "Few people have been able to hang on," writes Tang, "and they aren't hanging on because the changes are beneficial. Rather, they're hanging on because they feel a responsibility to black and brown East Austin, a right to the city."
McMillan feels his neighbors' pain and draws a connection to the work left uncompleted in the Urban Renewal Plan. "The disappointment is [that] no, we didn't end up with a neighborhood medium-sized grocery store, and pharmacy, and nightlife, and dining options that were actually directed at developing a clientele from the people here in the neighborhood." He sees a last chance for that slipping away.
Standing at a Fork in the Road
After the collapse of the Tri-Party Agreement in 2010, there wasn't much on the URB's plate. The city merely directed them to sell off the five properties they still held. Three (one on 11th, two on 12th) were eventually sold, after HUD gave the city an ultimatum to do so. The other two were more tricky – tracts containing multiple individual lots, with some longstanding site-specific issues, both on 11th – and are unsold to this day. Feelings about the URB and NHCD have fluctuated over the years, but many stakeholders' ardor for the vision embodied in Urban Renewal Plan itself has never dimmed.
That's why McMillan and others were distressed by Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison's action during a Council meeting on Sept. 19. She stopped what was intended as a routine vote to continue the URB and tried to kill its funding. "We're talking about a process that has been in place since 1999 and properties that have been at play since 2008, 2009," she said at the meeting. "We don't have time to extend processes that to date haven't worked." The Council compromised and gave the URB nine months of funding, promising to come back and revisit the situation.
"It was a kick in the pants, it was a slap on the head," said McMillan. For 15 years he's run Kenny Dorham's Backyard, a community event space that presents live music, poetry readings, and art festivals. It sits on one of Greg Smith's original 20 parcels from back in the 1990s, one of the two the URB never sold. "She is not representing the interests of those of us who are down here street-level, living in this community and working in this community," McMillan said of Harper-Madison. He notes that the URB is his landlord and that its uncertain future makes it harder to plan for his own.
Harper-Madison, who before being elected was head of the East 12th Street Merchants' Association, says she's not necessarily against – or for – the URB. "I'm certainly more in the middle. I find myself in that space, more than a real commitment to the maintenance of the board or to the dissolution of the board." She doesn't regard the URB as the only way to do development oversight and wants to see progress on those last two lots on 11th. Regarding the nine-month reprieve for the URB, she said, "I'd like for us to be able at the end of that time period to make an assessment as to whether or not it's time to try a new tool." In the meantime, the council member has, with the mayor's backing (by state law, he officially makes all the appointments), replaced four of the seven members on the board.
Harper-Madison's moves have confounded Eastside neighborhood groups, which include longtime residents as well as recent arrivals who share their values. "Why would we want to get rid of the Urban Renewal Plan or the Urban Renewal Board?" asks Tracy Witte, secretary for the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN), which represents neighborhood groups throughout the area. OCEAN came together after the Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan was adopted back in 2001; it's the "contact team," to use more city lingo, that gives voice to the neighborhoods within that planning area – the ones that surround and include East 11th and 12th.
Witte said, "All the neighborhoods in OCEAN, we were communicating to [Harper-Madison] that we would like the contract for URB to be renewed for 12 months. That's the information she was getting and yet her position seemed to be, 'I'm going to give it six to nine months.' Who's the constituency for that?" OCEAN had been looking forward to working with the URB, encouraged by the board members' communication skills, their commitment to oversight of developers on 12th Street, and their promise to bring in projects that fit the values of the Plan. On Sept. 19, they asked the Council to basically undo everything that Harper-Madison had done, to reappoint former chair Maegan Ellis and the other dismissed board members, and resume funding the URB in the traditional way.
In short, like McMillan, the neighborhood groups still believe in the Urban Renewal Plan and the URB's ability to enforce it. They want the URB to exert control over the developments that are coming to 12th. And the developments are certainly coming. A huge change in the look and feel of the street is imminent.
In recent years, real estate has flipped up and down 12th Street. The biggest development so far is the construction at the corner of 12th and I-35. The Huston, named for Charles Urdy's alma mater which once sat on that ground, will be a 14-story residential tower with 366 apartments. A few blocks over will be a development on one of the lots sold by the URB, Angelina+12th, with 24 units, two of them affordable; two-bedrooms will start at $500K. Other developments are in the early stages farther down the street.
But the big news on 12th is the major play made by Dallas-based Eureka Holdings. Since 2013, the group has bought close to a third of the street from the highway to the MetroRail train tracks (beyond the end of the Urban Renewal Plan area at Poquito), including the huge Mt. Carmel Village Apartments bordering Pleasant Valley. Eureka is currently trying to buy the Marshall Apartments directly opposite Angelina+12th, another large property and longtime home to low-income families. The company has been silent about its plans for years, which has terrified the neighborhoods. But in September Eureka made its vision available in documents filed with the URB (you can find them on the city website under the Boards and Commissions tab; look for the URB's Sept. 16 meeting).
Perusing the plans, one sees the usual pastel artist's renderings: visions of sleek design, graceful green spaces, and walkability. Eureka imagines 12th Street as beginning at Waller Creek and floating over the highway on a pedestrian bridge reminiscent of New York City's High Line. It continues along wide xeriscaped sidewalks, past angular Bauhaus boxes, all the way to Boggy Creek. The last pages of the presentation show the results of an affordability study. They note that the area has a high risk of displacement and a severe housing burden (meaning rents and mortgages are expensive). It shows that many residents are low income and need affordable housing. It makes no statement of purpose as regards the findings.
Harper-Madison says she wants a relationship with Eureka. "Absolutely, we 100 percent want to have a relationship and have a seat at the table when discussions about development in District 1 are taking place, and that's with whomever, that's with everybody." The council member doesn't agree with the view that developers will never willingly build affordable housing. She said, "In my experience thus far, developers are willing to do the affordable housing that people need if it makes sense to them, if it makes business sense. I have no doubt whatsoever that organizations like Eureka or others, when given the opportunity, will choose to do what's right for the community." She laid out some of her goals for development on East 12th: affordable commercial, affordable residential, comprehensive transit options, community spaces, and respect for the history of the area.
Whatever plays out with Eureka, 12th Street continues to change. The condos, some affordable, that came online last year just north of 12th and Chicon are transforming the feel of that iconic intersection, long an important one to the community – witness the controversy over the destruction, then re-creation, of a well-loved mural – but known for a generation for open-air drug sales and prostitution. The hustlers and spotters and folding chair observers have drifted away, replaced by young people tentatively stepping out to the new bars.
Back on 11th, one of the last institutions where black residents feel welcome just happens to be the one with a sword hanging over its head. Kenny Dorham's Backyard could be lost if the URB is defunded. Still, the plan all along has been to develop the space and, as Harper-Madison says, it seems past time to make a decision. When asked what she'd like to see on the lot, the council member says, "Oh, I'd love to see some duplication of what's happening there now. The way that the community congregates there is just amazing. It's diversity, it's fun, it's lively."
Original stakeholders Harold McMillan and Greg Smith are at peace with the lot's development – but they hope the city will make one last effort to fulfill the spirit of the Urban Renewal Plan, the vision that got them excited all those years ago. "My concern is not just about me, because I am not a young guy anymore and I don't necessarily want to continue to be moving speaker cabinets when I'm 70 years old," says McMillan. "But I am trying to do some legacy work and establish something that can live on in some form or another, something that is tied to the cultural identity of this street."
Chronicle News Editor Mike Clark-Madison chaired the Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan team (2000-01), then OCEAN (2001-04), then later served on (2009-17) and chaired (2014-17) the Urban Renewal Board.