Photo by city of Austin
Friday, November 20, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Landmark commission moves to block demolition of Delta Kappa Gamma building downtown

The Historic Landmark Commission has voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning for the Delta Kappa Gamma International Headquarters Building, against the owner’s wishes.

Currently, 416 W. 12th St. continues to serve as the office building for Delta Kappa Gamma, which owns the building. The group is seeking a demolition permit, which would enable it to sell the building. Becky Sadowski, Delta Kappa Gamma international president, spoke to the commission about the plan, which calls for replacing the building with a 31-story tower. She stressed that decreasing membership has made the group look for ways to survive.

She acknowledged the impressive history of founder Annie Webb Blanton, who was the first woman ever elected to a statewide office in Texas. The group moved into the building a decade after Blanton’s death.

“Our organization is more than a building. Our organization is the vision that Dr. Blanton had to develop and empower women educators around the world. And it is the work that we do every day to make that vision a reality,” Sadowski said. “This project is key to continuing to achieve that vision. We are at a critical point in Delta Kappa Gamma’s life.”

Commissioner Ben Heimsath used the case as an example of the importance of “reining in” the current dynamic in the city that offers the choice of demolition and construction of a 30-story building, or nothing.

“This is a serious, serious threat to preservation in the city of Austin and we need to start addressing this,” he said.

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Delta Kappa Gamma’s representative, Michael Whellan, explained the group had embraced the designation as a way to support an architecture student’s project.

“It was not clear to DKG at the time that a process they saw as celebrating their organization could later end up impacting their ability to make strategic decisions about their resources, and ultimately, endangering their ability to deliver on their mission and vision,” he said. “At its core, I think this case is about two things. First, how we balance our priorities as a city, including putting forward thoughtful designs and plans, while also meeting our growing housing needs. Importantly, I also think it’s about the way in which our land use policies, as a city, often catch folks in unsuspecting binds.”

Whellan said, at the time, the organization was assured that the listing would impose no restrictions on the property by the Texas State Historical Association.

“That might be true from the state perspective. That’s not true from the city’s perspective,” Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said. “Its designation is almost an automatic way to landmark designation for this building.”

Rendering of the new building. Credit: Stratus

On the other hand, Sadowsky said he was sympathetic to the applicant’s predicament and suggested a postponement in order to work on a design that incorporated the historic building into the new one.

“In all honesty, the new building – while it is very handsome – there is absolutely no resemblance to what’s there now,” he said.

Commissioners declined to take that route, instead voting unanimously to designate historic zoning.

“I don’t see, personally, how we can not recommend it,” Commissioner Kevin Koch said.

Commissioner Beth Valenzuela agreed. “Even if this was not listed on the National Register, we would have seen this and we would have arrived at the same point,” she said. “This process would not have changed.”

“To me, this is our mission,” said Commissioner Blake Tollett, who owns property down the street from the building. “It is an important property. 12th Street is not the wasteland that’s been described. It’s actually a nice boulevard,” he said. “A 31-story office tower there with a parking podium of five levels … folks, that’s horrifying as far as I’m concerned.”

Alyson McGee, who is a board member of Preservation Austin, asked for an alternative to demolition, saying, “Austin cannot afford to lose this piece of women’s history or afford to lose another potential local landmark.”

The Historic Landmark Commission will vote on whether to designate the building a historic landmark at its next meeting. If approved by a supermajority of City Council, the designation will prevent the building’s demolition.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Historic Landmark Commission: The city’s Historic Landmark Commission promotes historic preservation of buildings and structures. The commission also reviews applications and permits for historic zoning and historic grants.

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