Ever since Westside Health Authority bought the former Emmet Elementary School building last winter, it has been quietly working with Austin Coming Together and Evanston-based Teska Associates architecture firm to figure out what to do with the property. 

During the recent Austin Quality of Life Plan Summit, held June 2 at 5101 W Harrison St., WHA and Teska Associates architecture firm presented two redevelopment options. 

The first option involves a mix of retail, light manufacturing, a public green space, job training and educational facilities, and live/work spaces for entrepreneurs and artists spread throughout the original Emmett building and a new addition. 

The second option included building a new art center and a space for a co-op grocery store and a restaurant on the currently empty portions of the land, and using the existing Emmet building for a youth center, job training facilities, health care facilities, a youth center, senior housing and a public meeting space. 

The officials involved emphasized that those ideas are far from final. They were still planning to hold multiple meetings to collect public input and continue to refine the vision. And while WHA hopes to use the building to provide some of its own services, it will defer to whatever the community decides, representatives with the nonprofit said.

Robert Emmet Elementary School, which was located at 5500 W Madison Street, was one of the four Austin schools closed in the spring of 2013 as part of the last city-wide wave of school closings. Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th) announced that WHA purchased the building during his March 7 community meeting. 

At the time, Morris Reed, the organization’s CEO, said that WHA was planning to use some of the space and lease out the rest, but declined to elaborate beyond that.

During the presentation portion of the Quality of Life planning summit, WHA Chief Operating Officer Quiwana Bell explained that her organization bought the building because she and the other officials were having discussions about what should happen to it. They agreed that, whatever happens, people of Austin should have control of it. And, since WHA had the money, it made sense for it to try to buy it.

“Now that we have the land, we have to figure out how to develop it,” she said. “Central/Madison intersection is] smack dab in middle of the community. And it would be beacon of hope. People will say, ‘This is where the community can get together and get it accomplished.'” 

Scott Goldstein, the principal at Teska Associates, said that his organization, WHA and ACT held two meetings where area stakeholders discussed ideas for what they wanted to do with the site. One was held in February and one was held in March. The two options emerged from there. 

But both he and Bell emphasized that those are just early ideas and the organization involved were just beginning to collect input. Goldstein said that there would be public meetings later this year, which ACT is helping to organize. 

The summit was one of the meetings where they were collecting input. During the summit presentation, Bell asked the attendees what they wanted to see in the building. The suggestions included a senior center, workforce development services, services for homeless youth and health services. 

Following the presentation portion, the attendees had an opportunity to share their ideas with Goldstein, as well as to write ideas on post-it notes and put it next to the graphics. Bell emphasized that WHA will follow whatever the community ultimately decides. 

“We want this to be a community project, we want people to be part of it,” she said. “Westside Health Authority doesn’t have an agenda for this corner. We want to do what the community wants to do.”

During the March 7 ward meeting, Taliaferro said that he believed that WHA was hoping to use Emmet to consolidate its offices and services, a possibility that Reed declined to comment on. In a recent interview, Bell said that WHA hopes to use Emmet as a hub to provide services along with other area service providers, but she reiterated that, ultimately, what happens to the site is up the community, and if the community’s vision is different, WHA will follow suit.

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com 

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...