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Council votes to preserve parts of Levander Loop property

Monday, December 22, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Council found a compelling case in civic leader Fred McGhee’s argument that the gymnasium and auditorium of the former Texas School for the Blind, Deaf and Orphans deserved historic designation rather than city re-use.


Right now the city owns the property. A number of buildings on the site already have been converted to office space for various departments. In his presentation before the Council, Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky noted that the school was established in 1887 – at another location – and didn’t move to the site in question, at 7201 Levander Loop, until 1961.


City staff recommended preserving the arches of the gymnasium and then constructing a commemorative archway that would have the same frame as the arches, Sadowsky said. A historical exhibit would be constructed. The site would continue to serve the city’s Health and Human Services Department.


“It’s the staff’s opinion that, while the school is a very important institution in Austin, these buildings don’t reflect its history, and commemoration of these buildings and commemoration of the school at this campus is really more important than the preservation of these buildings themselves,” Sadowsky said. “So staff is not recommending historic zoning of these buildings.”


But this was not a situation where the city was being forced to re-use buildings on a tight piece of land. The property is 44 acres in size.  A number of other buildings have been restored, and reused. And, on the south corner, the city would like to put its new animal shelter, David Lurie told Council.


Re-use of the facilities – rather than the city-chosen demolition — would be costly, Lurie said. The gym and auditorium have not been used in over seven years and continue to deteriorate. Code and accessibility would have to be addressed. He estimated the cost would be over $8 million to restore the buildings.


By comparison, a commemorative open-air pavilion would only cost $650,000 to $700,000, and the archway estimate would be about $200,000.


McGhee, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association and the Black Austin Democrats, urged the Council to reject the city recommendation. The two buildings in question were viable, and the staff adaptive reuse estimates were “inflated and uninformed,” said McGhee, who went on to say that neglect of the property in terms of the city’s African-American culture was racially biased.


“The reason why this property should be zoned as a public historic landmark is because it is historic; not just at the City of Austin level but as a landmark of state or even national significance,” McGhee said. “In an egregious example of bad historic preservation management, no qualified historic preservation consultant to this day has had the chance to assess the total integrity of the school’s site and produce a formal report of its significance.”


McGhee said he would be more than willing to assist the city in identifying funding sources for the buildings preservation. He urged a systematic citywide approach to an integrated approach to historic preservation.


With those words, McGhee swayed the Council to vote for the Planning Commission recommendation, which was historic designation for the two buildings, plus a study of the adaptive re-use of the structures. The motion, made by Council Member Mike Martinez and seconded by Council Member Sheryl Cole, was approved on first reading only.


The vote for the motion was unanimous.

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