by Daryl Slusher
Over the last few years anyone paying attention to discussions at the City Council and Planning Commission has heard a lot about taking racial equity into account in land use cases. That standard, however, seems to apply only when it benefits the developer. That thought came to mind as I studied three zoning cases that surround the historic Stonegate neighborhood in East Austin.
Stonegate is a small neighborhood immediately south of Martin Luther King Boulevard and just west of Webberville Road, near U.S. 183. I call it historic because at the time of its creation in the 1960s, Stonegate was one of the few neigbhorhoods where African American could purchase a new house. Many of the original families still live there. The neighborhood is also within one of the census tracts with the largest remaining percentages of African Americans in East Austin and one of the largest percentages of African American home ownership.
Currently three proposals for intense upzoning are working their way through the City zoning process. The Stonegate Neighborhood Association is opposed to the upzonings due to traffic, potential flooding, and general quality of life concerns. So far they have found little empathy among City appointees, specifically the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission has already recommended approval on two of the cases and they are on the City Council agenda today, Thursday July 31. A third is pending before the Planning Commission. (There is a last minute possibility of the developer seeking a postponement at Council.)
One case fronts on Martin Luther King Drive, north of Stonegate, but backs up to the backyards of neighborhood residents. The neighborhood plan, developed by the neighborhood residents in partnership with the City, designated the tract for a mix of uses. The would be developer, however, is proposing to build all high density residential. The second case is on Heflin Lane immediately south of Stonegate. The third is along Webberville Road with a driveway proposed right across from the entrances to Stonegate.
Not only did the Planning Commission recommend the two cases to Council, but one Planning Commissioner, James Shieh, is a developer on the Heflin Lane case. Shieh recused himself on that case, but voted on the other, the Martin Luther King case. After the Planning Commission voted to approve the Martin Luther King case, and after the public was disconnected from the virtual meeting, Shieh moved to reconsider the case in order to have another vote for even denser zoning. The commission voted to reconsider, but ultimately the original recommendation stood.
Shieh’s move was probably within the rules, but still raises eyebrows, not least because the agent/lobbyist on the East Martin Luther King case, Ron Thrower, is also the agent/lobbyist on the Heflin Lane case in which Shieh is involved.
Self Described “Opportunistic Investors”
The developer on the Martin Luther King tract is Redbud Development, a company that on its website styles itself as “Opportunistic investors with an eye for the overlooked.” Under a section of the website, titled, “Our Method of Adding Value,” Redbud adds: “Much of the success of a project is determined by how you acquire the asset and the price you pay. We focus on properties where value is not easily visible and requires a creative approach and skillset to bring the property to its best and highest use.”
The “opportunistic investors” self description drew the attention of lifelong Stonegate resident Andrea Petit who told the Planning Commission, “The applicant Ryan Walker with Redbud Development advertised that they are ‘opportunistic investors focused where value is not easily visible.’ Opportunistic investors have come to you (the Planning Commission) because they believe they see value that others don’t in our neighborhood. And, that value is found in upzoning the property without regard to how it impacts the community.”
The Ryan Walker mentioned by Petit is listed along with Thrower on documents filed with the City. On the Redbud website, he is listed as a “Principal” in the company and his website bio states, “Mr. Walker has a diverse investment background spanning from oil and natural gas futures trader, to hedge fund manager, and finally as real estate developer. An opportunist by nature, Mr. Walker is a creative problem solver and highly skilled at evaluating risk and identifying attractive investment opportunities.”
Petit, also an officer in the Stonegate Neighborhood Association, added, “I want you all to know that Stonegate residents, and the neighbors around, see significant value in the investments, the integrity, the long term viability of what we have built.” Petit was referring to the close knit, loving community Stonegate residents have built over six decades. Petit added that neighborhood residents support “zoning that accomodates more density,” but “also need something that is a good fit for the existing neighborhood, including enhancing, not diminishing the quality of life.”
Petit also gave a brief history lesson of Stonegate. She told the Commissioners that she also spoke for her Mother, Catherine Petit, “a retired public school teacher” who has lived in Stonegate since 1965. Their home, said Andrea Peitit, sits “directly South and adjacent to the East MLK project.”
She also explained, “This very old neighborhood was developed for African American professionals like my Mother, who had a long history of being active in the City. Historically we had great relationships with the Planning Commission and the City Council. We worked together so the residents and developers were able to construct a win-win development. And, I know those leaders cared about us. We hope you care about us too.”
A Truly Historic Neighborhood
For some historical perspective, the year that Catherine Petit and her late husband moved to Stonegate, 1965, was the year after the Civil Rights Act passed. They moved to Stonegate just a few months after future Congressman John Lewis and hundreds of others were beaten trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in a demonstration for voting rights. The Voting Rights Act passed later that year.
The Civil Rights struggle was still very much underway in Austin — as we know it still is today. In 1965 Austin was two years away from even forming a Human Relations Commission, whose first early focus was housing discrimination. Housing discrimination was so bad, according to author Anthony Orum — in his 1987 history of Austin, “Power, Money and the People” — that officials at Bergstrom Air Force Base “were concerned that many of their officers and servicemen simply could not locate suitable housing in Austin for their families.” The ongoing situation prompted then NAACP head Volma Overton to write a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in August 1967 asking that “further federal spending on construction at Bergstrom AFB be suspended until the Austin community takes steps to stop subjecting military personnel to discrimination in housing.”
It is the history dating from that time which Andrea Petit refers to when she asks consideration for the “the investments, the integrity, the long term viability of what we have built.”
Petit says that over the years some of the original families have moved and some original residents have passed on. Many original families remain, however, and some second generation residents like Catherine and Andrea Petit and others have remained in the neighborhood. The original families welcomed newcomers and many of the newcomers have learned the history of the neighborhood and joined the neighborhood association — like current Stonegate Neighborhood Association President Adam Sharp.
Meanwhile the City Council is engaged in a broad scale push for racial equity including plans to cut up to $100 million from the police budget and rename streets with Confederate names. Will the Council, however, honor the requests of long time Stonegate residents who have engaged in that struggle their entire lives. Or, will they side with self described “opportunistic investors with an eye for the overlooked?”
Full Disclosure: The author of this article worked with Stonegate residents while serving on the City Council from 1996 to 2005, including helping build a Council majority to reject a zoning change to which the neighborhood was opposed. The Independent will continue to cover these zoning cases.
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