Tuesday, February 21, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Planning Commission rejects waiver after conversation on racism

Remarks on how institutional racism influences the city’s historic preservation goals prompted the Planning Commission’s indecision to approve or reject a compatibility waiver for a 5-foot setback on the western side of 2724 E 12th St. during its Feb. 14 meeting.

The application, made to accommodate site improvements to the multifamily Lofts at 12th Street project, was originally heard on Dec. 13, 2016, but the commission voted to postpone a decision until Jan. 10. When that meeting came around, the applicant was unavailable, and so it was postponed again for February.

The property sits adjacent to one of the former locations of Emancipation Park, a space conceived in 1907 to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday, which has moved several times since its inception.

Even though the public hearing was closed back in December, community members still managed to interject their opinions last Tuesday night. During citizens communication — which doesn’t allow speakers to comment on agenda items — Community Development Commissioner Fred McGhee spoke about Rosewood Courts, another former location of Emancipation Park.

Back in December, Michele Lynch, representing owner Shravan Parsi, said that a plaque would be installed to commemorate Emancipation Park as part of a restrictive covenant. After being pushed by Commissioner Trinity White, Lynch admitted that the owner had made the covenant with themselves, having found no support from the Chestnut neighborhood.

“As Planning commissioners, I urge you to think beyond doing historic preservation via a plaque or a monument,” McGhee said at the February meeting. “Historic preservation serves a public purpose. African-Americans pay taxes. We have a right to see our history commemorated.”

When the item did come around, Commissioner Tom Nuckols asked McGhee to elaborate on the site’s historic significance, and McGhee made the case that there could be archaeological history underground.

“In Austin, one of the things that is broken about historic preservation is that we fetishize buildings,” he said. “There is not a single archaeologist on the city staff. Not one. We have a bunch of arborists. We care more about heritage trees than we care about our actual heritage.”

Commissioner James Schissler questioned whether the discussion was relevant to the compatibility waiver. “I didn’t bring up a point of order for all this discussion about whether this site is historic or not, but that’s really not what we’re here to vote on.”

On the other hand, Commissioner Angela Pineyro De Hoyos Hart said that it was unfortunate that Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza was absent that night, because they are both on Mayor Steve Adler’s task force to address institutional racism. “This is a great example of the way our institutions are tone deaf to the cultural marginalization of black Austinities,” she said. “There should be a great discomfort in that all we’re getting here is a plaque.”

Commissioner Chito Vela agreed, saying that this case carried more historic significance than any other case he had heard as a commissioner.

Nuckols made a motion to approve the waiver, seconded by Commissioner Patricia Seeger. “This property is going to develop even without the waiver, so I don’t know that denying the waiver gets us a whole lot,” Nuckols said.

The motion failed on a 6-3-1 vote, with Vela, White and Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson dissenting and Hart abstaining. White then made a motion to deny the waiver, seconded by Thompson. That motion also failed 4-5-1, with Commissioner Karen McGraw changing her mind and joining the dissenters of the previous motion, and Hart still abstaining. Chair Stephen Oliver and Zaragoza were absent.

This story has been corrected, as it originally mistakenly identified Michele Lynch as attorney.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

East Austin: East Austin is the quadrant of Austin that, generally speaking, is east of IH-35.

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