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Neighbors protest planned demolition of older Eastside homes

Thursday, June 9, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

At least two East Austin neighborhoods are protesting the potential demolition of older homes in the Olive-Juniper neighborhood by the Austin Housing Finance Corporation.


Representatives of the Robertson Hill and Swede Hill neighborhood associations protested the potential demolition of 907 Olive St. at a special-called meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission this week. This comes after months, and even years, of both neighborhoods pressuring the city and the Austin Revitalization Authority to move forward with finishing the final half-dozen home renovations in the area.


Moving forward, however, is what put the city in the crosshairs of neighborhood leaders. With the tri-party agreement over, ARA transferred the remaining Olive-Juniper homes to the Austin Housing Finance Corporation for rehabilitation or replacement. After consulting with the Historic Landmark Commission and a number of adjacent neighbors about two months ago, AHFC demolished the structure at 905 Juniper St.


The neighborhood associations expressed shock and dismay at the swiftness of the action and came to protest similar action at 907 Olive St. Commissioner Terri Myers, who surveyed 905 Juniper during the creation of a memorandum of agreement about the Olive-Juniper structures, also expressed disbelief.


“I surveyed this property years ago. It was not individually eligible for a landmark, but it was contributing in a historic district the city initiated,” Myers said. “I think that was 14 years ago. I can’t believe the city has ignored it like this.”


Myers asked her colleagues whether the city had simply thrown away the agreement, which also included a 2006 proposal for an East Austin Historic District. That district, wrapped up in the ARA’s unsuccessful efforts to get the 11th and 12th street corridors, failed to materialize in the intervening years.


Contacted the following day, Gina Copic, spokesperson for the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, had laid out the Olive-Juniper houses as a three-phase project. ARA had moved through the infrastructure upgrades and replacement of a number of structures but a handful of units still remained when the project came to the city.


“The last remaining units, five units, were probably the more difficult units,” Copic said. “They could never make the numbers work. The cost of rehabbing these properties far exceeded what they could get a loan for, and they couldn’t do it.”


And, because the property was purchased with federal dollars, these houses have to be affordable. At this point, Copic said, it is unlikely that the remaining structures will to be saved. All have been condemned by the city’s Code Compliance Department. Most have significant structural problems.


“Frankly, the ones that we’re proposing for demolition, we’re proposing for a reason,” Copic said. “You look in through the doors, and the ceilings are collapsing. The structures are just caving in on themselves. There’s just not a lot of the historic fabric to retain, so if any of these homes are removed, our goal would be to replace them with a new unit, similar to what was there before.”


Even if the homes were salvageable, the AHFC has very little money to complete the projects. Just stabilizing the Detrick Hamilton House, which will be the home of the African-American Cultural Museum, was $186,000. That doesn’t even include rehabilitation. Making similar repairs to single-family homes would be well outside the scope of what the city could prudently spend.


Neighborhood leaders, who have been at odds with Neighborhood Housing and Community Development over the Marshall Apartment rehabilitation, were unhappy to see the historic fabric of Austin’s once-proud African-American community torn apart with no consideration given to history.


These homes might not be worthy of individual designation, but they are the very fabric and culture of the African-American Heritage District, said Stan Strickland, who serves as president of both Robertson Hill and the Organization of Central East Side Neighborhoods, or OCEAN.


Strickland said, “There’s a lot of disconnect and miscommunication going on. They crushed 905 Juniper with a big tractor. They represented for 15 years they were going to preserve this neighborhood, and now they’re going back on their word.”


Tracy Witte of Swede Hill Neighborhood Association said it was time for the city to find some creative solutions to preserve a key part of Austin’s history.

“If you look at the downtown density bonus program, they figured out a way to help historic property owners preserve the warehouse district while also keeping it economically viable,” Witte said. “We’d like to see some of the creativity applied to East Austin.”


At this week’s Historic Landmark Commission meeting, five properties were placed on the agenda for possible consideration given an impending order from the Building Standards Commission for demolition. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said it was based upon the commission’s wish to get ahead of demolitions and possibly start work on historic reviews ahead of any city action.


After some discussion, the commissioners pushed two homes, including 907 Olive St., onto the commission’s next agenda to consider initiating a historic landmark review.


Copic, for her part, said she had been in contact with broader neighborhood groups that had expressed more concern than the immediate neighbors. Three additional properties — 905 Olive St, 909 Olive St. and 1164 Curve St. – are now in a holding pattern as Copic continues to consult with Code Compliance and OCEAN.


Copic also confirmed the city had compiled photographic records of 905 Juniper St. and had saved the façade for future re-use, as directed by the Historic Landmark Commission in April.

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