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City’s East Austin Historic Resources Survey fails first big test

Thursday, March 2, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

In one of its first tests, the recently adopted East Austin Historic Resources Survey has failed the demolition-seeking owner of a well-known community activist’s home.

Adriana Salazar, who is with owners A New Hope Real Estate Investments Inc., spoke in favor of the demolition and asked the Historic Landmark Commission to make a decision on the case that night.

“Everyone involved has been terrorized and is in limbo,” said Salazar. “We just want our permit, or we want to get to (City) Council as quickly as possible.”

Though Salazar was seeking a permit to demolish the 1932 home located at 2008 East Eighth St., staff recommended the initiation of historic zoning on the home. That recommendation was taken seriously by the commission, who voted to postpone the case 9-1 in order to allow more time for research. Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou voted in opposition.

In recounting the history of the home, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky noted that it “tells the story” of the East Austin neighborhood that surrounds it. He explained that the home was built by Hattie Dale, an African-American maid at the Driskill Hotel. Later, it was home to a series of African-American families until being sold to the Nobles family in the 1960s. The Nobles, particularly Ora, were well-known community members. Ora served as president of the neighborhood’s redevelopment corporation, spearheading the preservation of the Blackshear neighborhood, and as a board member of the Legal Aid Society of Central Texas.

“She was such a community activist,” said Sadowsky. “It would be a great loss if her own house were demolished when she worked so hard for the preservation of other houses in this neighborhood.”

Commissioner Terri Myers said that, in the 1990s, she had interviewed Ora Nobles in this house about preservation in East Austin, gentrification and other issues. “I know Mrs. Nobles was highly respected for her civil rights activities and also her preservation activities. So I think it’s kind of ironic that her own house would come before us for demolition tonight.”

Salazar contested the historical merit of the home and emphasized that the interior of the home had been significantly altered. She also told the commission that restoration of the home would not only be unfeasible, it would also be unsafe.

As for the connection to the Nobles, Salazar said it was unnecessary given the fact that they were already recognized through Nobles’ pavilion in Lott Park, which was dedicated by Council in 2007, and through the Nobles’ Hope Center at Rosewood Baptist Church. She said that they had purchased the home from the Nobles family, who had no inclination of their own to preserve the home or use it to commemorate their family.

Most importantly, Salazar noted that the home was not listed as historical or as potentially contributing to a historic district on the 2016 East Austin Historic Resources Survey.

“It is not good practice, or fair, to adopt this survey, encourage people to rely on it, and then surprise them by completely straying from the survey’s findings. This is unfair and seems like a city liability,” said Salazar.

Sadowsky said that he shared the concern that the information from his office differed from the survey. It prompted him to make a “general offer” of help.

“If you are purchasing a home with the intent of demolition, you can call our office and we can help you determine whether there is historical significance whether it’s in the survey or not,” said Sadowsky, who explained that there was much more to the story of this particular house than the survey revealed.

Returning to the podium, Salazar said she appreciated the offer, but the reality was that it was very difficult to get a hold of someone in the city’s Historic Preservation Office, in her experience of calling multiple people over multiple days.

“I don’t have time to call five or six times a day to try and get a call back,” she said. “I appreciate it, but it is challenging to get a hold of you.”

Papavasiliou said that, in his opinion, “This was just the beginning of stories like this.”

“I think this is going to be the beginning of a more intense scrutiny of this East Austin survey and how people can’t base their due diligence and research on this,” he said.

He added that understaffing and underfunding of the Historic Preservation Office was at a point where carrying out the city policy was an unfair burden. He urged Salazar to talk to her Council member.

“Speak to your representative. You have to,” he said. “And everyone else in this situation has to.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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