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Preservation leaders show concern over delay in Sixth Street historic district

Tuesday, September 13, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The push to designate the East Sixth Street entertainment district as a city historic district has been postponed, with Council Member Kathie Tovo opting to wait for proposed new designed guidelines for properties that could be reconstructed as part of an ambitious redevelopment effort.

Tovo pulled a resolution at the Sept. 1 City Council meeting that would have initiated the process for creating the historic designation, leaving staff working on language for a separate building code amendment that would allow increased building heights on two sections of the street.

The moves are related to Stream Realty Partners’ plan to bring new businesses and daytime activity to the mostly late-night district by building a hotel and office building on the north side of the two blocks separated by Red River Street. That would require the demolition of sections of those blocks, though Stream representatives have said they want to make more modest improvements and re-tenant the rest of the 30-plus properties the company has acquired in recent years.

Council voted earlier this summer to have staff begin the work related to a change on the zoning overlay regarding building height, with new design guidelines included as part of that work. The district already has a national historic designation.

“If there is intent to protect the historic integrity, which I hope there is with this historic district, we’re going to need some tools for doing so, especially if the tool that is currently in place, the height restriction and setback restriction, is being modified,” Tovo said.

Staffers already have some design guidelines created several years ago that Tovo said “are ready to go and are going to come forward to us soon.” She said that “may solve part of the issue we have achieving balance of allowing new development and redevelopment but also making sure we continue to respect the historic integrity of that area.”

The prospect of demolishing a portion of one of the city’s best-known districts has drawn criticism, even as business leaders call for efforts to reinvigorate the area, which has been plagued by violence including multiple shooting deaths in recent years.

Members of the Historic Landmark Commission questioned why increased height and density were needed at an informational presentation from Stream representatives recently. Chair Terri Myers said re-creating historic construction would violate the spirit of the district.

“What we’re concerned about is Sixth Street has been a draw for tourists and local patronage for more than 30 years and the proposal to remove contributing resources in the historic district or demolish them and rebuild as historic replicas is not historic preservation,” she said. “That’s tantamount to going to Main Street in Disneyland and thinking it’s a real downtown street. It’s not and it’s been Disney-fied just like this is removing actual historic fabric and replacing it with something that’s like Disneyland.”

Via email, Preservation Austin Executive Director Lindsey Derrington said the city needs to enforce design standards that will encourage preservation over demolition and reconstruction.

“Preservation Austin supports historic zoning for East Sixth Street to protect the blocks surrounding Stream’s proposed development from demolition, and to shape future development along this iconic streetscape. The city’s proposed historic design standards outline clear strategies for adding density to commercial districts, including recommended setbacks and height limitations. Property owners, including Stream, would use these standards as a baseline to shape a unified vision for East Sixth. We feel that this would very much support Stream’s goals to bring improvements and new uses to this beloved space.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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