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East Austin Demolition Fight Highlights Preservation Issues

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Landmark Commission moves toward historic designation for home

Curbed Renovation Week—along with all the home tours that come with springtime—has us thinking about all the heritage homes that don’t get renovated in Austin. We’re talking about houses (and housing projects) that are 75-100+ years old, usually of modest size, that are regularly demolished for new builds, which often have much larger footprints than the originals.

The only way to protect such homes right now is to have them declared official City of Austin landmarks or "contributing structures" to a historic district. A recent East Austin case, which has yet to be resolved, has been part of the rising awareness of how inequitably such historic designations were allotted in the past. In addition, it brings up the question of whether such landmarks and districts serve the particular community they’re in or only contribute to gentrification.

Backyard at 1175 San Bernard Street
Backyard at 1175 San Bernard Street

At two recent meetings, the Landmark Commission considered the case of the home at 1175 San Bernard Street, one of East Austin’s most important streets, heritage-wise; it was where African-American professionals lived, worked, and formed a community during the period when Austin was racially segregated.

The property’s current owner recently filed for a demolition permit for the 1903 house. It’s standard practice for the commission to review such applications for historical structures before they move forward in the planning process.

At the most recent meeting where it was discussed, reports the Austin Monitor, only one neighbor spoke against the demolition, and the owner’s representative found that fact enough reason to conclude aloud that the community in the area doesn’t care one way or the other about the home.

1170 San Bernard Street
1170 San Bernard, one of the street's historic landmarks
Happywaffle/Wikimedia Commons

According to the Monitor, commissioners nevertheless eventually voted to initiate historic zoning on the house, with seven in favor and three against.

The Historic Preservation Office recommended that zoning, the story adds, with preservation officer Steve Sadowsky stating that the house evokes the history of the neighborhood and is relatively intact structurally. He also noted that the home is on a deep lot that has room for development behind the house. That approach has been applied on the street a block from the home currently in question.

1193-1/2 San Bernard, renovated house with new build in back
1193-1/2 San Bernard, renovated house with new build in back

Owner Margo Griffin Carter is selling the property to clear up her father’s estate, the Monitor reported; her representative stated that the house needs approximately $150,000 in renovations.

San Bernard Street homeowner Stan Strickland spoke against the demolition, noting among other things that the street has been recommended for creation of a city historic district and that there are several landmarks already on it.

The house in question is in Robertson Hill, where the neighborhood association has been battling several rapid moves to redevelop parts of the area on a larger scale; the most notable example of those fights is the ongoing one over One Two East, a proposed tower to be built at the corner of East 12th Street and I-35.

Materials for Celebrate San Bernard event
Materials for Celebrate San Bernard event
Six Square/Facebook

Adding to the cognitive dissonance is that Six Square (the new name of the African-American Cultural District’s promotions team) is currently preparing for its Celebrate San Bernard event, which will offer a guided tour of the historic homes on the street, along with kids’ activities and other events. It takes place this Saturday.

"House with no friends" wins over commission [Austin Monitor]

East Austin Towers Get Go-Ahead [Curbed Austin]

Developer Granted Delay on Controversial East Austin Tower Decision [Curbed Austin]

African American Cultural Heritage District website