By Dmitri Sans
What was supposed to be an orderly and expedient City of Austin planning commission meeting Tuesday night turned into a ruckus when protesters interrupted the proceedings, culminating with two demonstrators throwing rubber snakes at real estate attorney Michael Whellan.
The Tuesday meeting marked the first time that the rezoning case for the Ballpark and Town Lake apartments, a development move that has drawn resistance from the masses, was on the commission’s agenda. City staff have not yet made a recommendation on the case and were asking the commission to postpone a public hearing for the foreseeable future.
Case manager Scott Grantham explained to the commission that staff still needed to complete the transportation analysis for the application and take care of a few other considerations, which he said would take at least 60 days.
Local anti-gentrification group Defend Our Hoodz had stormed Grantham’s office back in July, confronting city staff for their complicity in the development process and demanding that they deny the rezoning application.
As staff was reading the agenda at the commission meeting, tenants and activists got out of their seats and unfurled a banner that said “No Domain on Riverside,” the Domain being a luxury multi-use development in north Austin that the Ballpark developers have said they want to recreate in southeast Austin.
The protesters chanted “People power is how we fight! No Domain on Riverside!” and “Hey Michael Whellan! Withdraw the application!” City staff quickly surrounded the protesters, telling them that there were rules that had to be followed.
“We will no longer play by the rules of the gentrifiers! We will no longer play by the rules of the city!” one protester responded. “We do not want discussions with the gentrifiers and developers. We do not want discussions with the city. We demand that these applications be withdrawn!”
Planning commission chair James Shieh said that if the protesters would not follow procedure that security would escort them out. When security personnel approached, two protesters reached into their bags and pulled out toy snakes. They yelled, “You’re a snake Michael Whellan!” and chucked them at the developer agent.
Whellan represents Nimes Capital, Presidium Group, and the other developers behind the rezoning application. When he first attempted to hold a meeting about the development in April, where he invited area homeowners but not Ballpark and Townlake tenants, protesters interrupted his speech and drove Whellan and the developers in attendance out of the building. One community member had asked Whellan if he knew what the minimum wage was, and he replied, “I don’t know.”
After the protesters exited the meeting yesterday, chanting as they left, the commission tried to get back on track with the agenda, but the atmosphere was more tense than it had been before. Planning commissioner Greg Anderson asked staff if they had done anything to reach out to these “young people” to incorporate them into the process. “I don’t want to pretend like that didn’t just happen,” he said.
“It definitely did just happen,” Jerry Rusthoven with the Planning department said. “It’s happened before, and it will probably happen again.”
Staff said that their attempts to negotiate with the tenants and activists had been unsuccessful thus far, but Grantham told commissioners that he had received calls from other people in the area who were more willing to work with city staff.
“I would hardly call [the protesters] representative of the community,” Grantham said.
Despite Grantham’s assurances, recent events indicate that the movement to defend Ballpark, Town Lake, and the greater Riverside area is gaining momentum. Defend Our Hoodz just declared a boycott of the developer’s Riverside art district yesterday, and the group asserted after the action yesterday in a post that “as long as slumlords and snakes like Michael Whellan try to remove the working class from Austin [we] will be there to fight back!”