The Austin City Council on Tuesday approved a long-awaited deal between a developer and the city that would turn the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center and two adjoining lots into parkland, protecting them from what supporters say is “business encroachment” in the Rainey Street district.
The decision was the culmination of years, and by some accounts decades, of effort by Austin’s Mexican-American community to secure the protection of the cultural center, which was built in 2007. On Tuesday, community members burst into applause as the council unanimously approved two items related to the deal.
The first granted New York-based Sackman Enterprises the use of a city-owned lot at 64 Rainey St. as a staging area for two years during the construction of its 35-story condominium complex on nearby 70 Rainey St., with the possibility of leasing it out for an additional nine months at fair market value.
In return, Sackman would pay $400,000 to the city that would go toward a rewrite of the cultural center’s master plan, which at 14 years is older than the building. The cultural center’s supporters hope the master plan update will blaze a path toward the completion of its unfinished phases. Any leftover money would go toward other projects at the center.
The second item designated the center and two adjoining lots — 64 and 58 Rainey St. — as parkland that would be annexed into the center in the master plan update. Community members had called for those plots of land to be converted into parkland for years after a different developer had tried to buy 64 Rainey in 2012.
That year, after pressure from the public, the council asked city staff to find a way to turn 64 Rainey into parkland, but the item had failed to materialize in the three years since. Council critics pointed to this as an example of how the cultural center is only brought to the city’s attention when a developer is interested in it.
“I understand the frustration that the Hispanic community has had with this process and the years it’s taken to get where we are,” Council Member Delia Garza said. “There were promises made. … It’s important for the city to follow through on those promises.”
Garza said the proposal wasn’t perfect but she would support it because she didn’t want the opportunity to slip through the city’s fingers.
“When does it get to a point when we get to stop fighting for these things?” said a visibly emotional Garza.
The main sticking point of the proposal, the widening of an alley in front of the cultural center, was sidestepped by city staff, which offered the alternative of moving the alley to another area that would still allow future residents of 70 Rainey St. entrance to their building but wouldn’t encumber the entrance to the center.
Opponents and supporters of the proposal said it wasn’t ideal but they were willing to compromise to ensure the deal got done. Representatives for Sackman Enterprises said any further delay would have thrown off its construction permitting deadline and wreck the arrangement.
“From the perspective of what the community interest has been all along, which is once and for all dedicating the MACC, and 64 and 58 Rainey as parkland, we got what we wanted,” said Paul Saldaña, who had been a vocal opponent of previous incarnations of the deal but supported Thursday’s motion. “You can’t really put a price tag or a value on how important that was. I’d take that over any amount of money.”
C.J. Sackman, the director of development for Sackman Enterprises, said the deal had taught him a lot about how to work with community members to come to a solution.
“I want to thank everyone for their hard efforts over the last year,” Sackman said.
As the council prepared to take action on the item in the small boards and commissions room at City Hall, Mayor Steve Adler said he was proud to sit on a council that would take the historic vote.
“This is the epitome of the 10-1 system,” Adler said. “What a wonderful day.”