ACT planning “innovation park” and arts district

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Plans are underway for a new, comprehensive economic development strategy for Austin, including the possible reuse of the former Brach’s Candy factory, spearheaded by Austin Coming Together and other community groups.

The plan’s goal, said ACT’s executive director Amara Eniya, is to bring organizations together to understand what projects are happening in the community to maximize development efforts, prioritize projects and identify funding.

“So often, community development is done on a piece-meal scale – one block here, a storefront there, a building there,” said Eniya. “What we want is to see is whether the Austin community can engage in ‘development in context’ – meaning, development in light of the opportunities and projects either underway or targeted by development organizations, elected officials.”

One aspect of the development strategy is to create an arts district along the Lake Street corridor near the former Brach’s Candy factory, 401 N. Cicero Ave.

The community coalition ACT and sustainable architecture firm Eco-Vidal Design created a proposal to turn the Brach’s site into a “innovation technology park” as part of the the Sweet Homes Chicago design competition, which asked urban planners, civil engineers and architects, among others, to address the high foreclosure rate in Austin. The extended deadline to submit a proposal is Oct. 19.

See AustinTalks previous story about Design Makes Change’s Sweet Homes Chicago competition.

The Brach’s site and surrounding area is one of “many potential sites” the group is exploring for the park, Eniya said.

The arts district was selected on the Lake Street corridor because of the various “characteristics that make it ideal,” she said, including “it’s location off the Green Line, the many potential storefronts and lofted spaces that could serve as artist housing, locales for businesses and the potential for innovative use of many of the open spaces and lots along the corridor.”

Eco-Vidal’s Carmen Vidal-Hallett said the plan explains how to turn the Brach’s site, just north of the Green Line Ciero stop, into an urban agriculture center and green business exchange.

The aim is to make the innovation park and surrounding arts district an economic engine for Austin, she said.

Eniya said they understand there’s already a business district in Austin, referring to the location along Chicago Avenue.

“Part of the goal of the arts district is to have an area of the community designated for a vibrant arts scene. The ultimate goal is to attract businesses as well,” she said.

Vidal-Hallett said the group has many ideas for the area, but it’s also looking for community input.

She said the location of the Brach’s site has the potential to become the gateway to culture in the Austin neighborhood due to its size – about 25 acres – and proximity to public transportation.

“Imagine all those empty lots available for families to do urban agriculture,” she said.

The Brach’s site has been vacant since 2004, but saw some action in August 2007 when part of the factory was blown up for scenes in “The Dark Knight” Batman movie, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In 2008, a private developer, ML Realty Partners, was authorized by the Chicago City Council to receive $10.6 million in a tax increment financing subsidy to complete an industrial facility at the location, but the plan never materialized and the TIF money was not awarded.

So far, the city is not involved with the project, but Vidal-Hallett said ACT and its members plan to reach out to the city and elected officials to help with funding.

Developing the first part of the plan has been a volunteer effort by those involved, and to move forward the group needs to secure funding, she said.

“It’s all a matter of putting the pieces together and getting to right developer at the right time with the right proposal,” Vidal-Hallett said.

It’s not clear how the various endeavors will be funded. Eniya said development funding is “complex.”

“Economic development projects must leverage various financing tools at the city and even state level and these financing options come from a variety of entities,” she said. “We hope to utilize our network not only to put together a comprehensive, cohesive plan, but also to help the entities at the table to prioritize and identify some of these financing tools.”

Some of the organizations at the table already have experience in working through development financing, Eniya said.

“ACT’s role is to serve as a facilitator and resource to assist the organizations in moving their projects forward,” she said.

Other groups involved with ACT are also contributing to the master plan.

Darnell Shields, project director of Friendship Community Development Corp. of Austin, said the small program founded by the Rev. Reginald Bachus of Friendship Baptist Church, hires community members, particularly ex-offenders, to upkeep and secure vacant, foreclosed buildings in Austin.

The program, which started in July 2011, employs about six individuals who maintain about 30 properties. Eventually, Shields hopes the program, as part of the master plan, will be a central part of ACT’s housing efforts to turn foreclosed properties into affordable housing for the community.

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