New East Austin Survey Tells a Story of Loss
To the uninformed, Shonda Mace looked like she was being a real creep. On a morning last March, the young woman loitered in front of a home on East 22nd Street. She eyed the house in front of her before snapping two photos of it.
“I take a façade, which is the front of the building, and then I take an oblique, which is gonna be the corner,” she said.
After that, Mace posed to herself a set of questions. She recorded the answers in a tablet she was carrying around.
“Is this historic? Is it not historic? Is it contributing to a historic district? Is it not contributing to a historic district? And why?” she asked.
At the time, Mace worked for local historic planning management firm Hardy-Heck-Moore Inc. Last October, the city of Austin approved a contract with the company for $299,995 to catalog “historic resources” – be those homes, businesses or districts – in East Austin. The project area spanned east from Interstate 35 to Pleasant Valley Road, and south of Manor Road to the lake.
In 2014, the owner of 903 Olive St. decided to rehab the original structure, rather than demolish.
The result – a voluminous document totaling well over 1,000 pages – is open for public comment through Friday. And while the firm identified 6,595 historic resources east of I-35, their 2016 East Austin Historic Resources Survey also tells another story: one of loss, particularly in the last decade and a half.
In 2000, the city paid the same firm to do a similar survey. This one included a smaller portion of East Austin – bounded by East Ninth and 14th streets. And in a comparison of the area covered in 2000 to the same addresses documented in the latest survey, at least a dozen homes tagged as having some potential historic designation – be that contributing to a historic district or eligible to become a local landmark – have since been demolished.
Terri Myers was part of the team that put together the 2000 survey. (At that time, the firm was named Hardy, Heck, Moore and Myers.) When asked to recount her reaction to news that the city had commissioned a new survey, Myers, who also serves on the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, said the city was just repeating some of its work.
“Go look at the 2000 survey, and follow those recommendations,” she mock yelled at the city.
Last year, the home at 1212 Bob Harrison (which, according to city documents, was built around 1939) was torn down.
Steve Sadowsky, Austin’s historic preservation officer, said that’s certainly been done. But preservation advocates say preservation occurs in a reactive, not a proactive manner. Sadowsky doesn’t disagree. Before this latest survey was completed, the 2000 survey was used as a reference when developers purchasing old East Austin homes within the cataloged area applied for a demolition permit with the city.
“Then we’re going to work with the applicant for that demolition permit to explore alternatives to demolition,” said Sadowsky. The 2016 survey shows the results of choosing alternatives to demolition (although it’s unclear if these were because of the encouragement of the city). One property, 1117 E. 12th St., was relocated to 909 Olive St.
But more often, homes were simply demolished, including a handful on East 13th Street. In the 2000 survey, many of these homes had been flagged as “contributing to a historic district.” In many of these cases, these historic districts are merely hypothetical – the home would contribute to it once the district was created.
But that process is arduous, said Myers. It includes meeting high thresholds, such as having half of the homes in that district older than 50 years old and looking close to their original form. Plus, the property owners of these homes have to be on board. The payoff is that demolishing or altering homes in these districts becomes much more difficult.
Myers said she has been working with one Austin neighborhood for two years to get a historic district established.
“The citizens have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” she said. “Many cities throughout the country do that legwork for the neighborhoods, and some even impose historic districts.”
In the 2000 catalog of East Austin, surveyors deemed 2007 E.12th Street "significant for historic associations; fine example of its type." The city approved a demolition permit for the home last August.
Sadowsky agreed, characterizing the city of Austin as taking a backseat when it comes to historic district designations – for better or for worse.
“Instead of the city having a heavy hand and coming in and saying, ‘You are now living in a historic district, and here are the new rules,’ we wanted this to come from the people living in the neighborhoods,” said Sadowsky.
And while some proponents of preservation are wary of how this most recent survey will be used, they all agree it is a much-needed resource. Historic Landmark Commission Chair Mary Jo Galindo highlighted eight of 30 items on the commission’s most recent agenda. The homes had been surveyed as part of the 2016 East Austin Historic Survey.
“The way I look at it, this survey gives us another tool,” Galindo said. “It’s not a solution in and of itself, but the information that’s gathered and the recommendations that are offered will prove invaluable moving forward.”
When asked why seek preservation at all, Galindo fell back on an old adage.
“In some neighborhoods where they’ve scraped off all the old houses, you might think that it’s just midcentury mod everywhere,” she said. “If you don’t know your past, how can you know where you’re going?”