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Gentrification vs. historic preservation divides historic landmark panel

Wednesday, December 19, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Plans to modify a community-center-turned-private-residence in East Austin have been put on hold, at least temporarily.


Jen Turner and Jack Barron purchased the Howson Community Center, which is located at 1192 Angelina Street in East Austin. The center has been a historic landmark since 1987, but the owners are now transforming it into a residential use. They came before the commission with a proposal to create a new interior courtyard, construct a new rear deck and swimming pool, install a rain collection system and paint existing doors on the property.


“I totally fell in love with it,” said Jack Barron, who explained that he wanted to return to Texas, where he was raised after living in Portland, Oregon for some time. “I was looking for something completely different, but this was brought to me and I just fell madly in love with it for every reason. The history, the structure of the building – I have a Masters degree in architecture, my partner is an architect. This is just heaven.”


“We’re deeply committed to this property,” said Barron. “I see this as a legacy building. I want it for my own legacy, my own family as well.”


Historic Preservation Officer Sadowsky explained that the only recommendation from the certificate of appropriateness committee was to leave the original doors on the building, something the owners agree to do.


“This is a great project, in staff’s opinion, on a building that had been suffering great neglect for many, many years and just sat vacant for a couple of years before the current owners bought it,” said Sadowsky.


Staff recommended approving the changes, but the commission elected to hold off, after one community member spoke against the changes, and against losing a part of her community.


Cheryl Bradley, who is on the AISD Board of Trustees, lives just one house over. She has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s. She corrected Sadowsky’s assertion that the building had been vacant for the past couple of years, saying that it was home to church services throughout the week.


Barron said that he was able to research the building somewhat, and learned it had served as a place for women and African-American social groups, day care, and even a union hall in the 60s and 70s.


“The building is not a house, it is a community center, and has been a resource for African-Americans since 1929,” said Bradley. “I am very disturbed that it was sold, and it was sold to be made into a house. No one surveyed the community, and no one spoke to us.”


Barron said that it was exciting to have purchased the property from Caritas, because “it meant that every cent we spent went to help the homeless.”


Barron said that he was “very sympathetic” to Bradley’s perspective. “I certainly understand what this building might have meant, and could mean to the neighborhood. It was presented to me that was no longer a possibility, which is why I pursued it,” said Barron.


An attempt to approve the certificate of appropriateness was thwarted by Commissioners Mary Jo Galindo and Andrea Roberts, who voted in opposition. It left the commission at a temporary standstill, provoking Commissioner Terri Myers to speak her piece.


“I understand, maybe more than a lot of people, the kind of gentrification that’s taken place in East Austin over the last ten years, because I did look at every house, every building, every structure, every site in the area in which the community center exists,” said Myers. “It hasn’t been that long since I was there last time, but it has significantly changed.”


“I think the difference in this building is that we’re not being asked to approve gentrification. We’re being asked to maintain and sustain a historic building that has meant a lot to the community,” said Myers. “I see this as a preservation effort. I don’t think we can dictate who buys the house and how they use it.”


Commission John Rosato agreed that they were charged with preservation of the structure, adding that it was a shame the building wasn’t purchased by the city or another group for a community use.


Barron said that he didn’t have the opportunity to talk with cultural interest groups, but had spoken with several neighbors “They approached me, and they were very excited. At least two sets of neighbors,” said Barron. “I felt very comfortable in the neighborhood, and that’s where I wanted to be.” He said that he wasn’t aware that some members of the community were upset about the conversion to residential use.


Roberts conceded that Barron “had the best of intentions,” but suggested that he use the postponement to better connect with the neighborhood. The case will return to the Historic Landmark Commission on January 28.


“It should have remained a community center, and it should have remained a resource for the African-American community. I think that we have lost a lot in that particular neighborhood due to gentrification, and here we have one more building that we’re losing that is a historical landmark for African-Americans in this city,” said Bradley.

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