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Rosewood Courts preservation fight finds new life

Tuesday, February 23, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Anyone who thought the bid to save Austin’s Rosewood Courts was over just lost a bet.

This Thursday, City Council will consider initiating historic zoning on the East Austin housing project. Council Member Ora Houston has sponsored a resolution supporting both the zoning change and the nomination of Rosewood Courts to the National Register of Historic Places based on its local and national significance.

It’s a rather unorthodox way to initiate historic zoning.

“I don’t think it’s happened in my 15 years,” Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the Austin Monitor.

If Council votes to initiate historic zoning, the process will most likely go back to the Historic Landmark Commission and Planning Commission before returning to Council, although Sadowsky notes that Council could elect to bypass that process.

Houston told the Monitor that she has been working with other community members on the preservation of Rosewood Courts since April 2012.

“It’s time,” said Houston.

In fact, there is a strong argument that Rosewood Courts is of historic significance. For one thing, the Historic Landmark Commission endorsed the housing project’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.

Rosewood Courts was the first African-American public housing project in the United States. It was built in 1939, thanks to the efforts of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who sponsored the project. The homes are also built on the site of the once-lost Emancipation Park, which was the site of Austin’s very first Juneteenth celebration.

However, this past August, the Historic Landmark Commission denied historic zoning for the housing project.

“This has been going on forever,” said Houston. “Our contention has always been that the units need to be rehabbed, and they need to continue to be used for working-class individuals in a rapidly gentrifying area of East Austin where there’s very little low-income housing available.

“When do some of the things that are the touchstones in our community, when do they get historic designation? Why is it that we tear down things in minority communities when they meet the criteria and don’t fight like we fight to save other people’s historic landmarks and touchstones? That’s part of having a place in this cultural heritage district that says, ‘people of color lived on this land,’” said Houston. “The issue is for people to recognize that there is some historic significance to our community.”

Houston stressed the need to preserve the housing development for a number of reasons – including easy access to transportation, health care, services and parks, and because of Rosewood Courts’ 96 children who attend Blackshear Elementary at a time when Austin’s central schools are losing students at a rapid pace.

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin, which operates the project, has not been in favor of its complete preservation. Unfortunately, no representative of the authority was available to speak to the Monitor prior to publication of this article. But the agency has consistently opposed preservation of the entire complex and, instead, has agreed to preserve six of the original buildings by way of a compromise.

HACA has also proposed a $60 million redevelopment plan for the rest of the property and argues that preserving and updating Rosewood Courts would mean a loss of affordable units, whereas demolition and rebuilding of all but six buildings would offer more affordable units in the long run. Along with some of the city’s housing advocates, HACA also emphasized the need for renovation of the units in general.

Fred McGhee, who has authored the applications for historic recognition up until this point, told the Monitor that he was “very pleased” to see the historic zoning on this week’s Council agenda. After the Historic Landmark Commission denied historic zoning last year, McGhee took the case to the Human Rights Commission and the city’s Ethics Review Commission.

He told the Monitor that the plan to preserve six of the buildings as a compromise was “ridiculous, completely ridiculous.”

“We’ve never said we don’t support rehabilitation of Rosewood, we just believe it should be done within the context of historic preservation,” said McGhee. “How are you going to destroy 80 to 90 percent of a property and say that’s historic preservation? Come on.”

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

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