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Shoal Creek rezoning could open new chapter in Historic Landmark Program

Monday, January 23, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Reflecting recently discussed changes to the city’s approach to historic zoning, Council has approved on first reading landmark status for two working-class homes that were part of a poor minority neighborhood on the banks of Shoal Creek. Though modest in design and scale, the homes “represent a vanishing chapter in Austin’s history,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.

The homes were built in 1908 in what was then a racially mixed community. The neighborhood quickly became almost entirely African-American and stayed that way until 1928, when the adoption of the Austin City Plan moved all facilities for African-Americans to the east side of town. By 1929, the neighborhood had become exclusively Hispanic. Such neighborhoods, often constructed next to creeks, were common in Austin at the time.

“These neighborhoods grew up in creek banks, in general because these were the least desirable areas of the city and subject to flooding,” Sadowsky told the Council. The Shoal Creek houses are not the Victorian revivals often brought before Council but simple board-and-batten vernacular working class houses in need of repair. “I recognize these houses don’t look like much,” Sadowsky admitted.

Interestingly, it was the relatively shoddy upkeep of the homes that brought them to the attention of Sadowsky and the Historic Landmark Commission.

“The case came about to the Landmark Commission because Code Compliance sent a letter to the owner saying they’re in disrepair and need to be repaired or torn down. (The owner) filed an application for demolition,” said Sadowsky. “We referred it to the Landmark Commission, which initiated the historic zoning case.” Almost all of the other homes from that period, both in the Shoal Creek neighborhood and in other creek bank areas, have long since been torn down. “These are two of the very last in Austin,” said Sadowsky.

Should Council approve staff’s recommendation on second and third reading, Sadowsky said his department will look to relocate the homes, perhaps to city property across Shoal Creek, thereby “keeping them in their historic context and adapting them for reuse, perhaps as park facilities for the BMX Park across the street.” If the properties are zoned historic, they will be eligible for rehabilitation grants.

“So we may have the opportunity to do some really good preservation work here, preserve these houses in their context, and preserve what is really the very last of a type of neighborhood and a type of house in the city,” said Sadowsky.

Council, city staff, and various commissions have spent much of the last year altering the city’s Historic Landmark Program, and one of the improvements they agreed on was to broaden the definition of landmark properties to include more buildings from poorer and more traditionally minority areas, rather than concentrating historic zoning (and its generous tax exemptions) in rich, white areas.

Council Member Morrison applauded city staff and the Historic Landmark Commission for pushing for landmark status for the so-called Shoal Creek Houses as a step forward for the city program.

“It highlights some of the discussion we had in the past year in terms of expanding what we’re embracing as landmarks, to make sure that we’re able to appreciate things that are not necessarily just grand old homes, and things that reflect community spirit,” said Morrison.

Council voted 7-0 to approve the rezoning on first reading.

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