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East Austin demolition pause raises questions at Historic Landmark Commission

Wednesday, September 28, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Historic Landmark Commission started off with a bang Monday night, when an unorthodox postponement of a group of East Austin demolitions put some commissioners on the defensive, left staff confused and sparked a shouting match in City Council chambers.

Commissioner Terri Myers and Chair Mary Jo Galindo explained that Council Member Ora Houston had requested the 11 postponements because the homes were all part of the East Austin Historic Resources Survey, which is currently in draft form. Galindo said she received the request at about 3:30 p.m. and that was the first she had heard about it. The fact that the request came from a Council member’s office was confusing to a number of people.

“Is there a protocol for when a Council member asks for postponements?” asked Commissioner Blake Tollett.

“No,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. “It would be nice if I had known in advance. But, no. … I think when we have a Council office requesting a postponement on this, then we need to give that credence.”

“This puts everyone in a very, very difficult situation. If we had known about this in advance, we could have advised people not to come all the way downtown and waste time,” said Sadowsky.

Sadowsky also indicated that the postponement was news to the dozen or so people who had come to the meeting expecting the demolition permits to have a public hearing. In an email to the Austin Monitor, he said he had since spoken with Houston’s office and “that will be resolved differently if it ever comes up again.”

Tollett said the commissioners did not take the postponement action lightly and apologized to those in the audience, preceding an attempt to postpone the cases in one fell swoop. That action was defeated in a vote of 2-5, with only Galindo and Myers voting in favor. It also provoked an outcry from the audience over the lack of transparency in the process, as there would be no opportunity to speak.

Reedy Spigner, who was waiting to speak on one of the proposed demolitions, made his own opportunity, yelling his concerns from the audience.

“That’s not fair to us. That’s not fair to us as citizens, and we are the ones who elected her in our district, and walked the streets and campaigned for her. And for you to say she holds so much power that you can’t go and do your job because she requested a postponement is not fair to anyone. That’s not fair at all,” said Spigner, to raucous applause.

Eventually, the commission voted to postpone all the cases but four individually, after hearing concerns from members of the public. (Those four cases were not recommended for historic zoning in the survey.)

The person requesting the postponement was not present in this case, but Houston spoke with the Austin Monitor on Tuesday afternoon. She made the point that her District 1 is home to “by far the greatest number of demolition permits.”

“Historically, properties in East Austin have not been granted landmark designation at the same rate as properties in other parts of the city,” she said. “That’s been an ongoing concern of mine, the lack of built environment that says that people have lived here and contributed to this society in very meaningful ways, and all of that built environment is just kind of demolished.”

Houston pointed out that the East Austin Historic Resources Survey currently underway was intended to identify historic structures and that the process will be wrapping up soon.

“My thought was, before we issue any additional demolition permits, we need to make sure that the study has been completed and that staff and the citizens of Austin have a concise record of those properties that would meet those standards,” she said.

The final version of the survey will be before the Historic Landmark Commission on Oct. 24 and is expected to be at Council in December. Sadowsky noted that it will not be “an official city document” until Council accepts it, and so his own recommendations made no reference to the document, which remains open to public input.

In addition, the 75-day time limit on the demolitions on Monday’s agenda will expire before that. The Historic Landmark Commission has 75 days from the time an item is placed on the agenda to initiate historic zoning or release the demolition permit.

Houston also told the Monitor that she was concerned about asbestos and lead in the homes being demolished in the area, and what kind of mitigation was being done. “Part of it is a public safety concern,” she said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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