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Landmark commission pushes for full preservation of Rosewood Courts

Monday, January 8, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

This year, a plan to preserve and redevelop Rosewood Courts will be making its way through City Hall. After more than two years of work, advocates for the plan hope that they have struck a compromise between modernizing the property and preserving its history. The Dec. 18 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission revealed that may not be the case.

The Housing Authority of the City of Austin is proposing to preserve the southwest corner of the Rosewood Courts and was seeking historic zoning on eight buildings along Chicon Street with the rest of the property slated for redevelopment. Instead, Historic Landmark commissioners voted 7-1 to initiate historic zoning on the entire property, with Commissioner Emily Hibbs voting against and commissioners Andrew Brown and Alex Papavasiliou absent.

“While I think that the redevelopment sounds like a great win-win solution for the city and the residents, I think that the decision of how it is redeveloped and which portions are redeveloped is outside of this commission’s purview,” said Commissioner Emily Reed. “Recommending the full boundary would recognize the significance of the entirety of the site.”

Rosewood Courts was the United States’ first African-American public housing project. Thanks to the work of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the project was built in 1939 at 2100 Rosewood Ave. In addition to that historical significance, the homes are also built on Emancipation Park, which was the site of Austin’s very first Juneteenth celebration.

At this point, the historic zoning case is several years old. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the last time it was before the commission, it was referred to a task force to look more closely at how to preserve the history of Rosewood Courts while preserving it as functioning affordable housing. That process has been going on for the past 2 1/2 years.

Fred McGhee, who identified himself as the founder and director of Preserve Rosewood, spoke against the preservation plan, saying he and his organization were “specifically excluded” from the task force, despite authoring the national register application for Rosewood Courts.

He told the commission that the proposal by the housing authority is a redevelopment project, not a preservation project, and that any other representation was disingenuous. He called for the entire property to be preserved.

“You don’t get to demolish 70 percent of a historic property and call that ‘historic preservation.’ What I’ve just witnessed is a good example of how separate and unequal historic preservation is in our city,” he said, turning to imagine the preservation bid applied to a different property.

“I don’t think anybody would seriously entertain demolishing 70 percent of the Lions Municipal Golf Course and call that ‘historic preservation.’ It’s a double standard, plain and simple,” he said. “This is part of the soul of our city, and if you sanction its demolition, what are you saying? What are you doing?”

On the other hand, affordable housing advocate Ruby Roa spoke in support of the project. She said that for her and the families at Rosewood, the most important aspect of the plan is that it will allow families to stay in the city, offering the 124 families living there now first right of return and the opportunity for homeownership.

Roa said that she recognized the importance of historic zoning on the property, “but we are talking about people,” she said. “Please support this project so we can keep our low-income families and moderate-income families in Austin.”

Sylvia Blanco, who is the executive vice president of the housing authority, spoke in support of the preservation plan as the owner of the property. “Ultimately, it’s about improving the quality of life for the families that we serve,” she said.

She explained that the plan would preserve and restore the exterior of eight buildings while modernizing their interiors, bringing them up to current code. That process, said Blanco, would create a net loss of units within the eight historic buildings. As a result, she said that the historic zoning “had to go hand in hand” with the redevelopment of the rest of the property in order to serve the same number of families.

During the discussion, the makeup of the Historic Landmark Commission, which has no African-American members, came under fire. Donna Carter, who is the architect on the project, assured the commission that the process had included “a cross-section of people” including current residents, who are largely African-American, that were wary of an effort to preserve the existing units. “They said, ‘We want all new units,’” she said. “It’s a complicated question.”

“We do want to restore them, we do want to tell the story here, but we also want to serve the people on whose backs the stories have been told,” she said. “It’s not going to be that easy.”

The commission will consider this case again at its Jan. 22 meeting, where Sadowsky said a full report on Rosewood Courts will be available.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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