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Reporter’s Notebook: Humans of Austin
Monday, November 4, 2019 by Austin Monitor
Get by with a little help from your friends, and supporters… With city of Austin special elections taking place Nov. 5, the cycle is almost over – except for candidates who are gearing up for a round of elections in March 2020, which includes the race for Travis County District Attorney. Next year, two left-er leaning attorneys, José Garza and Erin Martinson, are looking to challenge incumbent Margaret Moore. Although both candidates announced their campaigns this spring, Garza is still working on getting himself officially on the ballot. To ensure that the March race is more than just a duel, canvassers are roaming neighborhood streets asking residents to sign a petition to get Garza into the race. According to a canvasser, 500 signatures are needed. The canvasser did not have a current signature tally.
Oversights happen… In the case of the property at 1705 Nueces St., that oversight happened 25 years ago and is only now coming to light, and property owners are seeking a correction. The property in question was designated historic in 1994, but today it is a condominium lot with two separate properties and two separate owners. “The entire parcel was designated historic, and it never should have been,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky at the Oct. 28 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission. The south section of the tract is the Steussy-Skinner House, which is listed at 1701 Nueces Street and is the property that the city intended to preserve with this historic designation. This “inadvertent” error, according to Sadowsky, occurred due to the practice at the time to designate entire platted parcels as historic rather than carving out the historic structure with a buffer from the rest of a split property, as is sometimes done today. He assured commissioners that the owner of 1705 has not received any tax benefit from this historic zoning since it was converted to a condo regime in 2010. Removing historic zoning from 1705 would not change the zoning at 1701, which will remain historic. With the assurance that the Steussy-Skinner House would remain protected, the Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously to recommend the removal of historic zoning from the portion of the parcel that is 1705. Chair Emily Reed was absent.
Humans of Austin… Members of the Human Rights Commission spent part of last week’s meeting talking up a nascent plan to humanize those experiencing homelessness in the city through portrait photography and storytelling. Commissioner Alicia Roth Weigel is spearheading the effort, which is not an official city program, that she said is intended to tell the stories of members of the city’s homeless population and “eliminate the stigma around homelessness” that has developed since June, when the city revised its rules regarding sitting and camping in public places. Weigel is working with a local photographer whom she hopes to connect with area groups that interact with and provide assistance to the homeless. The well-known photography series “Humans of New York” is seen as a possible model for the effort, with homeless people offered the chance to have their portraits taken and share information about themselves. Commission members suggested connecting with the Humans of Austin community on Facebook, with a possible social media campaign timed to present a large number of photos and stories at once to draw more attention to personal stories of the city’s homeless.
Heritage tourism awards coming soon… Austin’s heritage grant program is expected to receive more than $1.8 million in Fiscal Year 2021, increasing to more than $2 million in FY 2024, according to Melissa Alvarado, the city’s heritage tourism manager. Historic preservation receives 15 percent of the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax, but 70 percent of those funds is dedicated to preserving and improving city facilities. Another 15 percent of the funding is reserved for potential future historic acquisitions or major preservation projects. Alvarado discussed the status of those historic preservation programs at the most recent meeting of the Council Audit & Finance Committee. She reported significant growth in expenditures for historic preservation in line with growth in the city’s HOT collections.
This year, the city received 23 heritage grant applications, 19 of which were from nonprofit applicants and four of which came from commercial applicants. Of those, staffers are recommending two site-specific heritage tourism projects – one at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and one at the Downtown Austin Alliance. In addition, staff members recommend that Council approve funding for heritage capital projects at the Paramount Theatre, Laguna Gloria, Austin Scottish Rite, the French Legation, German Free School, Guero’s restaurant, La Peña, the Neill-Cochran House, the Austin Woman’s Club/North-Evans Château, Uptown Sports Club and the Waterloo Greenway. Council is expected to consider those applications this month.
Council Member Kathie Tovo was instrumental in increasing funding for heritage tourism and was concerned that a private property owner might receive heritage grant funding and then sell or demolish the property. Alvarado explained that any property owner receiving heritage funding would be required to have landmark status and keep track of tourist visits for three years, particularly noting any visitors related to conventions. In addition, the contract requires that the property owner notify the city if there is any change of use, title or historic designation for 10 years. Finally, the contract will include a right of first refusal for the city.
This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns, Jo Clifton and Chad Swiatecki.
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