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Planning Commission moves Rosewood Courts case to Council

Friday, March 16, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

Voting against a request to postpone the case, the Planning Commission unanimously approved staff’s recommendation to grant a portion of east side public housing project Rosewood Courts historic zoning at its Mar. 13 meeting.

Controversy has centered around whether all of the 1939 public housing buildings should be zoned historic or if only some of them should be. The Historic Landmark Commission itself has flip-flopped on the issue, recommending full preservation in December but changing its mind to the preservation of only eight buildings in February.

Rosewood is the first African-American housing project in the country. In addition, Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating emancipation from slavery, was regularly held on-site when it was known as Emancipation Park.

Complicating matters is the fact that many of the buildings are in substandard condition. Zoning the entire lot historic would preclude the Housing Authority of the City of Austin from expanding the affordable housing on-site by demolishing some of the old structures and building new ones.

Preserve Rosewood founder Fred McGhee was asking for a postponement. He explained at the Planning Commission meeting that night that the results of a federal investigation of Rosewood would be available in another week or so and would inform the case. However, HACA President Michael Gerber said that it was a routine review, not an investigation, and that its outcome would not have any bearing on zoning.

The commissioners decided not to postpone and opened the public hearing. Many Rosewood residents and advocates spoke in favor of staff’s recommendation, and the chamber was packed with supporters wearing purple T-shirts and holding signs. The only speaker in opposition, McGhee made the argument that voting for only partial preservation would be a violation of basic historic preservation regulations and would be sanctioning a “racist double standard.”

Having worked with HACA before, McGhee said that he had witnessed firsthand in the Hope VI redevelopment for Chalmers Courts how residents were “manipulated, bought off and brainwashed.” Furthermore, he claimed that he had been deliberately blocked out of recent discussions with HACA and other stakeholders, despite his past advocacy for the project.

In a rebuttal, HACA Vice President Sylvia Blanco said that McGhee has had ample opportunity to be a part of the process, but that he has been an obstructionist. “At this point, he’s on his own,” she said. “He has not wanted to come to the table and be productive.”

Prompted by a question from Commissioner Patricia Seeger, Blanco clarified that full preservation would not prevent HACA from making necessary repairs, but it would restrict the number of families HACA would be able to serve.

Ex officio Commissioner William Burkhardt said that while he supported the recommendation, he was afraid that the resulting change in the design of the project may have unforeseen consequences for the social bonds between residents. “You are going to lose this sense of community,” he said. “I don’t see how this proposed design will foster and engender the kind of camaraderie and community that I see here tonight.”

After the motion to approve the recommendation passed, Chair Stephen Oliver made a special exception to his usual rule about hand-waving in lieu of applause, and the audience cheered loudly in response. The case will go before City Council on Mar. 22.

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

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