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Design Commission approves design for African-American cultural center

Thursday, August 5, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Architect Al York made two presentations on the site plan for the African American Cultural and Heritage Facility in the last two weeks and got two different responses.


The African American Cultural and Heritage Facility – not to be confused with the city’s Carver Library expansion project – was funded by Austin voters in the 2006 bond package. As part of Proposition 4, bonds are used to provide a home for community non-profits and information on the heritage district.


The city, killing two birds with one stone, rolled the cultural center into the preservation of the city-owned historic Dedrick-Hamilton House, located at 912 East 11th Street. The house is considered to be the home of one of the earliest freed slave families in Austin, although recent research indicates the home in question might be owned by a subsequent, rather than initial, generation of the family.


McKinney York Architects is handling the design of the $4.6 million project, which was funded with both bond and stimulus money. New construction, including a parking garage, is expected to wrap around the Dedrick-Hamilton House, with the main portal, or entrance, being off East 11th Street.


The Design Commission’s reaction to York’s presentation of new site plan elevations was positive. Last week was the second time the group had heard York speak, and commissioners’ concerns about the placement of the building and its relationship to the street had been worked into revised plans.


Comments by York and from the Design Commission ticked off the elements they liked about the plan: The scale of the new commercial structure is intended not to overpower the historic house; overhangs on the building now create a shade structure; the underground parking structure is integrated into the property; the courtyard and portal are clearer, with more obvious walkways.


Because of the placement of the Hamilton-Dedrick House on the property, accommodations will have to be made for sidewalks. This being the Design Commission, and many of the members being architects, meant York was given advice on things like planting zones and sidewalk placements.


Landscape architect Eleanor McKinney, who is not related to the firm doing the work, noted that planting strips often require license agreements because of irrigation requirements in the city right of way. McKinney said it was important for the city to understand the implications for this project, and others, when it comes to irrigation.


Commissioner Richard Weiss noted, from his experience, that it would be easier to get the façade of the building – Austin common brick – shipped in from Chicago. In other words, Chicago common brick is easier to find than Austin common brick. Weiss appreciated how the color pallet of the bricks matched the existing siding on the historic Dedrick –Hamilton House next door.


Commissioner James Shieh, offering his own assessment, said he appreciated how the design now pulled back from the critical root zone of a larger historic tree on the property. The design of the commercial building, Shieh feared, would be too much like the historic house. Instead, it complements the structure.


The Design Commission gave its unanimous approval of the cultural center’s design, including the exceptions needed to accommodate the sidewalks on the property.


The Urban Renewal Board, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic about the project when it was presented to them two weeks ago. Commissioner Sharon Baxter, in particular, was concerned that the commercial building would overwhelm the house. The new cultural center will house a meeting space and the African-American Chamber of Commerce, according to current plans.


“I like the thought of using the traditional Austin brick, but it just looks real harsh sitting next to the sweetness of the house,” Baxter said. “I like the placement next to the house, but this somehow looks like an afterthought.”


York agreed that Baxter’s comments hit on the real challenge to the architects. How could a modern building and historic structure be integrated on a single site without marring the integrity of the historic house? The Historic Landmark Commission had expressed similar concerns, York told the board.


“We looked at doing a wood-sided structure, sort of similar to this house but just larger, and it made the little house look trite,” York said. “We have tried to use the vocabulary of this neighborhood, of mixed development, in our plans.”


McKinney York’s approach, however, was to use the Dedrick-Hamilton House’s design to inspire the design of the commercial building next door. Plans on the project attempted to mirror the design elements of the historic house next door in its elevation and placement of windows and doors.


The design was not as welcoming as it could be, said Baxter. However, Baxter’s preference – to see some architectural element such as an arch join the two buildings – probably would not fly at the Historic Landmark Commission. York confirmed that the Historic Landmark Commission’s support of the project was contingent upon the fact it “causes no adverse effect on the historic house.”


Chair Ben Sifuentes also had concerns about excavation on the property, which once had a gas station on the side of it. Sifuentes, despite assurances from the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development staff, wanted a presentation from Public Works on containment of any low-level contamination on the property.


No work would move forward, said Planner Sandra Harkins, without pulling a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. And TCEQ would not allow any project to move forward if there were contamination issues.


The first step in construction of the project will be stabilizing the Dedrick-Hamilton House, York said. That should be approved and move forward in the next two to three months, York said. Construction should begin early next year, with the project being completed within a 12-15 month time frame.

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