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History collides with need for new animal shelter

Monday, October 13, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The City of Austin hardly has a sterling record of approvals for variances and exceptions out of city commissions, and last week’s Historic Landmark Commission meeting was no exception when it came time to approve a site for the city’s proposed animal shelter.


The city is strapped for cash and needs a place to locate a new shelter. So it seems logical that a city-owned 44-acre tract off Loyola Lane would be the answer. In fact, the tract could be two answers: a location for both the animal shelter and affordable housing, along with some of the city’s current health and human services offices.


That would have been fine if the location of the proposed sites was not the home for the former Texas Blind, Deaf and Orphan School – East Campus, with long ties and associations with both the black community and the deaf community. While the campus dates back 49 years, the school itself has a history well over a century old. Prior to its association with the state school, the site was the Montopolis Drive-Inn.


The Historic Landmark Commission did not have much sympathy for the city’s plight of finding an animal shelter site it could afford. In fact, it was the commission that initiated the historic case on the property after its significance was brought to the commission’s attention. The commission also has a rather jaundiced eye when it comes to how well the city has performed as a historic caretaker.


“Look at the Austin (Country) Club at 12th and Lamar. It literally fell apart,” Commissioner John Rosato said, noting another city-owned landmark. “Unfortunately, that could happen here, and we’d never have a chance to preserve it. We should be looking at this because it’s close to a neighborhood. There could be some community use for the gymnasium, instead of coming back and saying we need to spend $5 million to build a new one.”


Commissioner Patti Hansen’s argument also swayed the commission. She noted that the city needed to do a better job of planning on a 44-acre property. She wanted to see a master plan for the entire campus before signing off on any proposal. When Hansen proposed zoning the gym and auditorium on the campus historic, she won the support of her colleagues. Chair Laurie Limbacher, who had a conflict of interest because she works on a city contract, recused herself from the vote.

One of the sticking points on historic designation for the two buildings on the campus was just how long it had an association with the deaf school. This particular campus, on Levander Loop, was a relocation of the segregated deaf school back in 1959. That makes it just under 50 years old, the general watermark for a building’s consideration for local historic landmark status.


Historical archeologist Fred McGhee, who is also the president of the Black Austin Democrats and the Montopolis Neighborhood Association, was at last night’s meeting and argued the age of the building – just shy of 50 years – was not as important as the significance of the historical institution: one of the few known segregated deaf schools in the country.


McGhee, who put the Santa Rita Courts forward for national historic designation, is well spoken and articulate. He’s also well versed in state and federal law on historic structures. He noted that taking the metrics of a building is easy. Understanding the building’s relevance to a city’s history and culture is harder.


McGhee said he supported the city’s application for demolition but it was the desire of the Austin Black Democrats and the school’s supporters that the school’s history and value to the community be documented and that a historical marker be placed on the site so that the school was not forgotten.


“The African-American community and the alumni association for the school committed to me that they stand ready to assist in that effort,” McGhee said.


The City of Austin has owned the deaf school property for about eight years now, said city staffer Melanie Miller, who made the presentation on behalf of the city. Slowly, over the intervening years, various sections of the city’s health and human services department have moved into four renovated buildings: birth and death records; a director’s office; the city’s emergency preparedness program.


The city’s proposal – which is still a bit vague – would demolish both the auditorium and gym on the site, which are on opposite ends of the property. Affordable housing would replace the gymnasium on the portion of the property closest to residential neighborhoods. The animal shelter would replace the auditorium, which is located closest to Airport Boulevard, which would be best for drop-offs and pick-ups.


The city’s concerns are practical ones. The gym and auditorium are aging, dilapidated buildings that have been vacant going on a decade. The cost of removing the two for re-use is estimated to be around $3 million.


“My concern is – even if we were to have partners come to the table – if we add the veneer of historic zoning, it puts some other constraints on the cost and on the redevelopment use of the property,” Miller admitted.


The Historic Landmark Commission’s vote is only a recommendation to be considered by Council. Miller said the animal shelter is still in its initial design phase. The intention was to have a public meeting in October or November to take the design concept out to the local neighborhood. The shelter — with its kennel — is intended to be as far away from the local neighborhood as possible to minimize any disturbances.

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