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AISD backs off city amendment, for now

Monday, October 3, 2016 by Courtney Griffin

A potential disagreement between the city and Austin Independent School District board of trustees and staff was put on hold at the AISD board’s regular Monday meeting last week, when a motion to send a letter of opposition to City Council and the city’s Planning Commission failed in a rare vote of 0-4-3.

The letter regarded the city’s proposed amendments to Title 25 of the city’s Land Development Code. The amendments would require the Historic Landmark Commission to review all demolition applications for structures that are at least 50 years old and are dedicated to certain civic uses, such as public elementary and secondary education.

Trustees Edmund Gordon, Gina Hinojosa, Paul Saldaña and Ann Teich opposed the motion. Trustees Julie Cowan, Kendall Pace and Yasmin Wagner abstained from voting, and Trustees Amber Elenz and Jayme Mathias were absent for the vote.

At the meeting, Ylise Janssen, AISD’s general counsel, explained that the ordinance poses a problem for AISD because 49 of its buildings are currently 50 years or older. In 10 years, 75 to 79 of the district’s buildings will be 50 years or older. Staff said that under the proposed amendment to the ordinance, the term “demolition” also applies to renovations. With an already tight construction schedule that takes place primarily during the summer, the additional oversight would “severely impact” AISD, Janssen said.

“I just want to make sure that we all understand why the city is doing this,” said Hinojosa to staff. “There was a concern addressed that there were historical African-American churches that we had lost. In particular, there was the Mount Sinai Baptist Church that was leveled because the staff person at the city decided not to bother to send it to the Historic Landmark Commission.”

Hinojosa explained that some residents felt the city may have a double standard when it comes to what is considered historical. She said that only 41 out of the city’s 500 historical landmarks are associated with African-Americans, and only 13 are associated with Latinos.

“I think it’s notable that the very Council members who are pursuing this are the ones who have been big supporters of AISD, and in fact … just approved $2 million this year alone in support for AISD,” Hinojosa said. “I don’t feel comfortable sending such an absolutist position to them when we haven’t even sat down to try to figure out where we have common ground.”

Hinojosa also added that AISD’s own process of notifying residents of historic designations or of demolition reviews for potentially historic buildings was mostly ad hoc at best.

Wagner, after conferring with staff, noted that neither the city nor county had notified AISD staff of the proposed amendment, although the entities had been discussing changing the ordinance since June. Rather, Janssen confirmed, Pace had notified staff of the upcoming city agenda item.

Janssen said staff with the University of Texas at Austin and Austin Community College were also surprised by the proposed ordinance.

Janssen said after a conversation with city staff that AISD trustees and city officials were tentatively scheduled to talk about the issue at their Oct. 7 joint subcommittee meeting. Additionally, she said, the Planning Commission will hold off until November in order to foster discussions.

AISD staff refused to release the letter in question to the Austin Monitor, stating that since the motion failed it was protected under attorney-client privilege.

Photo by kyasarin made available through a Creative Commons license.

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