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Council shows desire to use historic zoning process to address wrongs

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council members will be considering only one application for historic zoning this week – the Robert and Helena Ziller House on Edgecliff Terrace – but discussions about the city’s historic zoning program have raised issues in recent weeks about the role heritage, geography, and historical circumstances should play in the historic designation process.


While the Ziller House is not expected to specifically raise those kinds of issues, any item regarding historic zoning is likely to gain added attention.


At their most recent work session, Council members raised the heritage issue during a discussion of the Paulson-Sing house, a frame bungalow on the city’s east side owned by the family of the late Joe Sing, one of the most prominent members of Austin’s early Asian community. (See In Fact Daily, March 10, 2011.)


That discussion continued two days later at the Council meeting, where members overruled city staff’s objection and concluded that, in certain cases, considerations of heritage and cultural history should trump actual historic significance.


At that meeting City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told Council that it was “with regret” that he and staff could not support the owner’s application. He said that though Joe Sing’s historical significance is undeniable, the actual association of the Sing family with the house dates back only as far as 1992, 65 years after Joe Sing’s death. It’s implicit in city code, Sadowsky said, that the historic association of a building, and not just the building itself, needs to be at least 50 years old.


But Raul Hernandez, the current owner of the house, asserted that the code says no such thing. “It’s not stated in the application that the family has to have lived there for 50 years,” Hernandez said. “It only says that (the building) has to be 50 years old.”


Hernandez, the nephew of Joe Sing’s daughter Margaret, also pointed out that because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and local racial laws, Joe Sing was not allowed to purchase a house in Austin during his lifetime. Thus, he said, the very existence of the Paulson-Sing home is a marker of the city’s evolution toward tolerance and equality.


That claim resonated with Council Member Laura Morrison, a strong supporter of historic rezoning. The very fact that Council was considering a house that a figure of historical significance would not have been able to own, she said, is proof of the need to approve such a house for historic status because it reflects both the dark history of the city and the development of its racial attitudes.


“As we struggle with the historical association time period (of the home) not being the same as the architecture time period, that disconnect is reflective of some of the history … that the family was not able to buy a house (during that time),” Morrison said.


Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez agreed. Martinez has been the most vocal supporter of adding heritage and cultural history to the list of considerations for properties seeking historical designation. At the work session, he had bemoaned the “dearth of historic preservation as it relates to Mexican American and Hispanic heritage preservation.”


At the Council meeting, Martinez took the argument further. “We’re already looking at how to rewrite our historic designation program, but I really think we need to look at how we recognize and preserve the history of people as well, not just structures,” he said. “When you start thinking about it from an immigrant perspective, how many prominent immigrants have we potentially had live and die in this community who never owned a piece of property and will never be recognized for their significance because we don’t take into account people (and) only take into account structures?”


Martinez said he hopes to bring to the Council a proposal for a program that would “recognize the person somehow.”


Susan Deaderick, the applicant’s agent, echoed the Council members’ definition of the historic landmark process. “One of the purposes of the city’s historic landmark program is to document and preserve not only structures but the stories from our past that define who we are today,” she said.


Council voted 7-0 in favor of historic rezoning for the Paulson-Sing House.

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