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Photo by city of Austin

Last residential house on Rainey cleared for demolition by landmark commission

Friday, June 4, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

In 2019, a KUT report introduced Austinites to John Contreras, then known as “The Last Man on Rainey Street.”

Rainey Street, historically a residential neighborhood, has become one of the city’s most prominent centers for nightlife and large-scale development.

Contreras’ story was noteworthy because unlike many current Rainey Street residents, he didn’t live in an expensive condo and he wasn’t new to the neighborhood. Contreras lived in a small house at 71 Rainey St. that had been in his family since the 1940s. While many of the neighborhood’s residents have moved away in the past few decades, Contreras stayed.

Eventually, Contreras sold the property and the old house fell into disrepair. It was this level of deterioration that persuaded the Historic Landmark Commission to approve a demolition permit for the home last week.

Kalan Contreras with the Historic Preservation Office told the commissioners that the demolition proposal was only considered “due to life safety concerns.” The property has also received code violations related to its structural integrity and lack of general maintenance over the years. Photos of the home’s interior submitted to the city show that the house is leaning to one side.

Photo of the home’s interior courtesy of the city of Austin.

The structure is so precarious that Commissioner Ben Heimsath – who by his own account usually holds “engineers’ reports with a bit of suspicion” – admitted that an attempt to repair the property would be “re-creating it rather than restoring it.”

While the commissioners were pragmatic in their approval of the demolition, they also engaged in a broader discussion about preservation on Rainey Street, a neighborhood historically associated with Austin’s Hispanic population.

An alternative option the commission could have taken was recommending the property for historic designation. The building’s age, its presence in a historic district and its clear ties to the neighborhood’s past could have made it a strong candidate for landmark status, but city staffers came to the conclusion that the “property does not possess a unique location, physical characteristic, or significant feature that contributes to the character” of the neighborhood.

When discussing the possibility of recommending the home for a historic designation, Chair Terri Myers brought up the issue of representation, saying that, “of more than 600 historic landmarks in Austin, less than 20 are associated with Hispanic families.”

Commissioner Kevin Koch was sympathetic to preservation concerns and even went as far as to say that Rainey Street is on the verge of “self-cannibalization” with “the new construction – between density and corridors and whatnot.”

Ultimately, Koch pushed the commissioners to approve the demolition permit, saying, “At some point a stand is going to have to be made to maintain some sort of balance of character” in the Rainey Street Historic District, but he didn’t feel as if this dilapidated house was a good starting place for those efforts.

Commissioners voted to release the demolition permit with the completion of a documentation package – a file of photos and a narrative history of the building for Austin History Center archives.

Myers and Commissioner Beth Valenzuela were the only commissioners who voted against.

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