Council to discuss lot again in January
tural Center and activists said the tower would block views of that iconic structure.
City officials are trying to decide what to do instead with the lot. The development group is pressing ahead with plans for the tower on other Rainey Street land it owns. And Hispanic activists are asking the City Council to temporarily halt development along Rainey to take a fresh look at what types of buildings belong there and will be compatible.
The City Council will discuss the city lot again next month.
“What we’re saying is, ‘Time out, let’s take a step back,’” said Paul Saldaña, who grew up in East Austin, owns an Austin public affairs firm and whose aunt and uncle once lived on Rainey Street. “Right now there are no standards to ensure that buildings are compatible on Rainey, and that we protect the integrity of the (cultural center), which is symbolic of the Mexican American history in this area.”
Earlier this year, the city was eyeing the 0.3acre parcel for more parking. The cultural center has 127 spaces that are free and open to the public, but those and scant on-street parking along Rainey Street often aren’t enough to accommodate center visitors and the people who flock to the nearby bars and restaurants.
So the city put its lot up for sale in May, asking bidders to offer not only money but options for more parking. It got one bid back from 70 Rainey Street LP, which plans to build a 30-story tower that includes parking, ground-level retail, apartments and possibly office space.
The development group offered the city $1.2 million for the lot, or $100,000 and 30 parking spaces in the new tower, or $400,000 and 20 parking spaces.
But board members of the Mexican American Cultural Center said they weren’t aware the city lot was up for sale, and were irked that the tower might obscure the center’s entrance. So the City Council voted 4-3 to reject the bid and asked parks officials to seek other ideas for the lot that fit the cultural center’s mission.
Suggestions from the public include a public art space, community gardens, a memorial to the area’s history, and a public market.
An appraisal firm hired by the city valued the lot at $1.2 million. If the parcel is developed, some of the city and county property taxes it generates would be used to help pay the debt on a big flood-control tunnel being built along nearby Waller Creek, which will open up flood-prone areas to development. The city has set up a special district of properties whose taxes will help fund the tunnel.
The 0.3-acre lot currently houses a trailer that is the construction headquarters for contractors on the tunnel project, which is expected to wrap up in 2014. If the city decides to use the lot for a different purpose before then, it would cost $100,000 to rent other space for the contractors and move the trailer, said Lauraine Rizer, the officer of real estate for the city.
After decades of prodding by Hispanic activists, the city completed the $17.7 million cultural center in 2009 on six acres of city land. The bold white structure contains two galleries, art classrooms and performance spaces.
The 0.3-acre city lot could hold about three dozen more parking spaces. But the cultural center’s board is urging the city to turn it into a “multiuse” public art space that could include landscaping, benches and something to honor the area’s history, such as a new version of a Rainey neighborhood mural that was demolished in the early ’80s.
Nikelle Meade, an attorney representing the 70 Rainey Street group, said halting development along Rainey would conflict with a 2004 zoning plan put in place to encourage tall buildings in the area that could include offices, condos, hotels and retail.
“Residential property owners on Rainey Street fought for and were successful in getting (that new zoning) approved,” she said. “They and the City Council came to the consensus that the future of this area should be high-density development. A moratorium would be counter to all of that.”
Members of the cultural center’s board said at a recent meeting that development on Rainey has begun to seem haphazard, as new high-rises join a proliferation of bars, creating traffic and parking snarls.
In addition to three residential towers located on or close to Rainey Street and the tower planned by 70 Rainey Street, Novare/Andrews Urban is building a 23-story apartment tower there. And Sutton Co. has said it hopes to build two residential towers that could reach as tall as 50 stories.
City parks officials will soon install a gate in the cultural center’s parking lot that will allow them to close off the area for center events. They also might put parking meters there. And they are considering installing a permeable surface next to the center’s current parking area to add 115 temporary parking spaces.
Some say the bigger issue is not parking, but whether the new buildings sprouting up in the area are cohesive.
“Development on Rainey just seems to be sort of uncontrolled. It doesn’t feel like there’s a plan,” said Juan Oyervides, chairman of the cultural center’s board. “We’d like to see some respect for the (center) and the history of the neighborhood.”