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Rosewood Courts’ historic zoning denied

Wednesday, August 26, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Balancing affordable housing and preservation in East Austin resulted in a dead-even split at the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday night, when a divided commission of six failed to recommend initiation of historic zoning for Rosewood Courts, one of the country’s first public housing projects.

Commissioners voted 3-3, with Chair Mary Jo Galindo and Commissioners Emily Reed and Terri Myers voting in favor. Commissioners Michelle Trevino, Arif Panju and David Whitworth voted in opposition, and Commissioner Madeline Clites was recused. Commissioners Blake Tollett and Grace McKenzie were absent.

Rosewood Courts was the first public housing project for African-Americans in the United States. Though Austin was a much smaller town in 1939, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson sponsored the project and brought it to the east side of Austin.

Both the city’s Historic Preservation Office and the Housing Authority of the City of Austin, which operates the housing project, opposed granting historic landmark status to the property. HACA has been working on a $60 million redevelopment plan for Rosewood Courts that will add units, allow for on-site homeownership and reopen Emancipation Park, which was established in 1909 and served as a gathering place for the city’s African-American community prior to construction of Rosewood Courts. As a compromise, the plan would also preserve six of the original units buildings.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that because of this plan, his office was recommending against the historic designation, despite openly acknowledging that the housing project is “highly significant.”

“What’s your problem?” asked Myers.

“These folks are taking preservation of this site very seriously,” said Sadowsky. “They recognize its historical significance, and staff believes that we should take them at their word and let them proceed along with the plan they developed along with a lot of community input. To say that every building on this site needs to have a certificate of appropriateness, or is protected from demolition, or alterations, is something that does … get in the way of their mission.”

Though he voted against the designation, Panju said he found the irony of the situation “fascinating,” pointing out that the categorization of landmark zoning as onerous was at odds with the commission’s stance on private properties. Additionally, he said, “This actually sounds like history.”

That may be so, but Rosewood Courts has also been the site of some pretty intense ideological battles over the past few years. Illustrating that fact, current residents and housing advocate Ruby Roa urged commissioners to vote against the historic designation so that Rosewood Courts could be renovated.

HACA’s Eileen Schrandt, who is the project manager for the Rosewood Courts initiative, explained that work on the redevelopment project has been ongoing since December 2012. Retaining and upgrading the original housing project, she said, would mean a loss of units – from the current 124 units to about 78 – in order to meet the standards laid out by the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs. The new plan, in contrast, would add 76 new affordable units.

“This doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize the cultural and historic significance. … We know that there is a lot of connection to the community,” said Schrandt. “But we believe historic preservation can be achieved through means other than just historic zoning. … HACA supports historic preservation, but not through historic zoning.”

Schrandt explained that historic zoning would make permitting “very challenging” and could mean the end for the project.

“We want to be able to offer a better quality of life, and balance that with historic preservation,” said Schrandt. “But we don’t think that means preserving every single unit in every single building of the 25 buildings that are there right now. It’s basically saying that a better quality of life isn’t deserved by the people who live there, if we keep absolutely every single one of the 124 units that are there today.”

For those fighting for historic zoning, there were other matters to consider.

Fred McGhee, who authored the application, noted that of the 600-odd properties in Austin with landmark status, only eight commemorate black history, though he was willing to look past that issue of “basic fairness” and concentrate on the merits of the application. The case, in his estimation, was a slam-dunk. He told commissioners that the property met all the criteria for historic zoning.

“This is public property, this is not private property, so the issue of a tax advantage is not an issue here. … This would be a nomination of a piece of public property that is iconic not just in the history of our city, but in the history of our country,” said McGhee.

Rev. Freddie Dixon, who is on the board of the Austin African American Cultural Heritage District, also spoke to the necessity of preserving Rosewood Courts.

“East Austin, as you know, is a changing neighborhood. … Many of the newcomers who are coming to the city of Austin know nothing about the history of East Austin and the changing of East Austin,” said Dixon.

“We need to hold onto that place because many of the ancient landmarks that we know that are Austin are passing away. And this area, housed on Emancipation Park, is a significant area here,” he continued. “I do think we owe that to those persons who have lived there, to those persons who have made legislation possible for them to be there.

“We need to have that historic designation there so that (people) can always say that these were some of the first public housing in the United States of America. We need to preserve the history, the culture and the integrity of East Austin,” Dixon concluded.

Rosewood Courts has been nominated to be in the National Register of Historic Places, and that nomination was endorsed by the Historic Landmark Commission in January of last year, but the application remains pending. Santa Rita Courts, which was built during the same time period, is on the National Historic Register.

Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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