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Pemberton bid for historic zoning raises questions about Austin’s racist past, historic future and policy on tax abatement

Thursday, March 3, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Is historic preservation honoring Austin’s racist past? That’s the question that came up at the most recent meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission during a sprawling conversation that ultimately landed on how the city manages its historic tax exemptions.

In the end, commissioners recommended historic designation for the 1930 William F. and Eleanor Warren House at 1502 Hardouin Ave. in a vote of 9-2, with Commissioners Arif Panju and Alex Papavasiliou voting in opposition.

The home’s current owners, Garrett and Laura Key, are seeking historic zoning for their home. Garrett Key explained that he had grown up in a historic home in Austin and was happy now to find an 85-year-old home into which he could move his own family. The city’s Historic Preservation Office supports the nomination based on the architectural significance and historic associations of the home.

The Keys’ neighbor, Jane Hayman, objects to the historic zoning. She questioned the idea that the Warrens “had made any significant contribution to the history of Austin.” Though the staff report identified William F. Warren as the president of Brydson Lumber, Hayman noted that “not one example was provided to show that Warren or the company he presided over did a single worthwhile thing under his leadership.”

On the contrary, continued Hayman, “The one significant practice of the Brydson brothers, as developers, involved their open and expressed practice of racial discrimination and the promotion of their services as being ‘for whites only.’”

This policy, she said, was clearly on display in Austin American-Statesman advertisements from the time and in official Travis County property records. She explained that people of color “were expressedly excluded from acquiring properties owned or developed by the company.”

Commissioner Terri Myers said she “would hazard a guess that most, if not all, houses in Pemberton had restrictions outlawing ‘colored people’ at the time.”

When Hayman pointed out that the company was “one of the most racist-oriented companies” in the city’s history, Myers seemed unruffled. “I think they all were,” said Myers.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky backed up Myers’ point and put Hayman’s claims into context. He told the commission that most homes at the time had deed restrictions limiting homeownership by race and religion.

“Statements that Brydson was a racist lumber company are, I think, untrue,” said Sadowsky. “To say that because there is a deed restriction, that the company that built the house is also racist, I think, is stretching it beyond recognition. … It’s just the way things were at the time.”

Laura Key said she also understood that there were racially restrictive laws all across the country. She said, “While that is something that I’m sad to have happen to our home and to that neighborhood, I do not think that it excludes what we think is a great application for a historic home.”

However, the home’s history wasn’t the only point of contention.

Panju asked whether the tax abatement was what motivated the Keys to move forward with their application for historic zoning. Laura Key said it was not and that the couple had learned about the abatement later in the process. She explained that their goal was to help maintain the historic character of Hardouin Street in a city that was rapidly changing.

Panju said the fact that they lived in the house “kind of mitigates the risk of that changing.” He noted that the home is worth $1.4 million, and the tax abatement, in total, is $8,400 per year. Thirty years of that abatement, he observed, would amount to 20 percent of the home’s purchase price. (Of that number, $2,500 is the share of city tax property abatement.)

“It’s a tremendous discount,” said Panju. “I can’t help but compare that to the $16 homeowners in Austin got last year from the City Council and see a great disparity.”

Myers disagreed. “If the house meets the criteria, it should be designated as a historic property. Tax abatement is not our purview.” Chair Mary Jo Galindo agreed with Myers on this point, and other commissioners noted that the tax abatement helped homeowners with historically appropriate repairs that can be costly.

But Panju did not waiver from his opinion.

“Some people like to ride a broken bike, but eventually it is going to crash. I would rather point out that the bike is broken and Austin City Council should fix it,” said Panju.

Commissioner David Whitworth agreed with Panju but was less clear on whether it was the proper time to discuss the city’s policy on historic tax abatements.

“I think this is actually closer to meeting the criteria than some of the other cases we’ve seen,” said Whitworth. “(However), serving on this commission is not fun when we’re talking about these large sums of money. … I just don’t know how long I can sit uncomfortably in the chair up here looking at these if we can’t address our bylaws or ask Council to give us some direction on how to equitably manage these abatements we are giving people.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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