Developers, planners explore racial equity goals for building Austin

Thursday, March 23, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

Members of Austin’s real estate and development community considered plenty of questions and ideas Wednesday concerning how to improve and prioritize racial equity in building projects throughout fast-growing Austin.

No all-encompassing answers or silver-bullet tactics were revealed by the panel assembled for Urban Land Institute Austin’s monthly member breakfast, but speakers such as Maggie Parker, founder and managing partner of Dallas development company Innovan, talked plainly about the need for bringing members of the BIPOC community (Black, Indigenous and people of color) into conversations concerning how neighborhoods are best developed.

“Me being in the room with my development company and the partnerships I have is already changing the narrative as well as the wealth component of thinking about racial equity,” said Parker, who is Black. “Since I got into this space, so many folks who do not look like me have sponsored me or are my business partners and fund the development projects that I work on. To encourage this practice … how do you think about market analysis and hiring? Or how do you think about the neighborhoods and look and different loan opportunities?”

Corbin Graham, principal with Graham Development, said equity has become increasingly baked into the planning and development principles prioritized by the city and  Travis County, making the business case for advancing it easier from a fiscal and approval standpoint.

He said equity considerations will play a large role in his company’s forthcoming mixed-use project on 43 acres on far South Congress Avenue near the planned route of an eventual Orange Line train. The project is expected to include 1,218 multifamily units, 210,000 square feet of office space and 136,000 square feet of retail space.

“In our site selection we’re already building on the development planning the city has put in place with its goals of achieving racial equity,” he said. “By selecting that site, we’re building on things the city has already selected and building an urban node opportunity for a community we hope will be very successfully integrated. The business case has been presented to us by city leaders, so being aware of those opportunities and putting it together is really the role a developer needs to play.”

In discussing the need to secure building capital for commercial and residential projects, Pegy Brimhall, principal for Figurd Development of San Antonio, said developers with racial equity as a priority often need to be more resourceful and resilient in their search for funding. Maintaining that tenacity, she said, can be difficult for BIPOC entrepreneurs already facing other social and economic challenges.

“It’s all about the math and understanding how the math works in 100 different scenarios, but the next thing you have to understand when you get into development is the rejection of approaching 20 different equity sources where if five are interested, three will take you down the road and one will say yes,” she said. “That’s not an easy thing to bear when you have rejection in so many other parts of your life. But if you are diligent, those sources will come, and they can come from a municipality like a county … and that will make your (return on investment) and annual returns pop to look good if you’re doing multifamily development.”

Jay Hailey, co-founder and director of Equidad ATX, used the discussion to revisit the two years he spent while working as a partner at DLA Piper studying the flight of Austin’s Black population. That research, which concluded in 2017, led to the formation of Equidad and its participation in helping to address food insecurity and the need for health services in Austin’s Eastern Crescent region.

“When people say we don’t need to dig up our history and let things lie in the past, they’re just wrong,” Hailey said. “We need to fight back against that attitude that history just doesn’t matter, because it matters not only as history but it puts in context the present for what we are dealing with today with things like the 1928 plan. The remnants of the division of the city exist today and we ignore that at our peril.”

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This article First appeared in austinmonitor

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