Historic Landmark Commission Defies AISD, Moves Forward with Historic Zoning for Lee Elementary

Jul 26, 2016

From the Austin Monitor: Once again, the Historic Landmark Commission was the site of an ideological showdown over the fate of Russell Lee Elementary. And, on Monday night, it was also a face-off between the commission and the Austin Independent School District.

Just prior to the commission’s meeting, AISD sent a letter officially opposing historic zoning for the school, so a supermajority – or eight votes – was required to approve the change. Commissioners met that threshold, and the recommendation to change the school’s zoning passed 8-1, with Commissioner David Whitworth voting in opposition and commissioners Beth Valenzuela and Emily Reed absent.

"They lost the fight, and now they are coming before this commission to ask them to do what no court will do."

Last month, the commission voted unanimously to initiate historic zoning for the school with several commissioners expressing disappointment that the sign had been taken down prior to their official review. They had postponed the case in April and May, trusting that the sign would remain intact in the meantime. Instead, after trustees voted to change the name to Russell Lee Elementary on May 23, they removed the lettering on the building without consulting the city further.

Until this week, commissioners did not expect the district to oppose the historic designation. Representing AISD, Winstead PC attorney Alex Valdes explained that the district did oppose the change and that, in the district’s opinion, the fight for preservation was a “complete end run” around the lengthy public process that changed the name of the school – so that it no longer honored a Confederate general – earlier in the year.

“We believe that is bad precedent for the Historic Landmark Commission to designate the school as a landmark when, basically, the entire presentation (in favor of historic designation) is just a subterfuge for an extended battle over the name of the school,” said Valdes. “The name has been changed.

"This issue has torn our community up. People have called each other names, cried, shouted at each other, rebuked one another..."

“What we have here today is a handful of citizens with indirect or temporary ties to the property, who, at least from AISD’s perspective, have never taken this kind of interest in respect to any other school facility or any other facility in the city of Austin,” he said. “The timing is suspect. … They lost the fight, and now they are coming before this commission to ask them to do what no court will do.”

Valdes also argued that the school district had autonomy to make its own decisions on the use of its property, as determined by the elected board of trustees, except in cases of public safety and health.

Members of the board, however, disagreed. Commissioner Arif Panju said it was “odd” that the school district had reversed its position and hired private counsel to do so. Those in favor of the historic zoning pointed out that there are two schools – Pease and Matthews Elementary – that were designated historic landmarks without a similar battle.

Austinite Dan Roberts said the name change was “irrelevant” to his wish to ensure the building’s preservation (though he later spoke against the new signage that would display the new name, as the new name has no historic significance).

“I suggest that it’s AISD who wants to elevate political correctness over historic preservation. They’re two unrelated issues,” said Roberts. “Let’s not confuse the two issues. … We simply ask you to review this property on its merits as a historical structure.”

"I always thought this was worthy of historic designation. But it got too ugly."

Of course, the context in this case was almost impossible to ignore. Whitworth explained his vote in opposition to the historic designation, saying he was worried the commission was setting up the school board and City Council for “a strange interaction” that will detract from more important things.

“I always thought this was worthy of historic designation. But it got too ugly,” he said. “It’s not about the name – but it’s about the name. … I don’t like any of this, and I think the school board has the authority to rename the building.”

Commissioners also approved a certificate of appropriateness for the new “Russell Lee Elementary” signage that was created using the old lettering as a template and the original letters where possible. They voted to approve that change 8-0-1 with Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou abstaining.

"I hope AISD figures this out and somehow comes to an understanding with the city, because it's sort of embarrassing to have this argument."

Commissioner Terri Myers advocated for the new signage. Although she understood concerns about “false historicism,” she expressed that this case was larger than that.

“This issue has torn our community up,” said Myers. “People have called each other names, cried, shouted at each other, rebuked one another. … I feel like it’s important to protect the building, and I would like to, in equanimity, allow the letters (to say) Russell Lee. And I would like them to be in the same style.”

Council will ultimately have to approve or reject historic zoning for the school at 3308 Hampton Road, which was built in 1939 with funds from the Works Progress Administration. Staff is recommending the designation and also supported the new signage on the building.

“I hope AISD figures this out and somehow comes to an understanding with the city,” said Panju. “Because it’s sort of embarrassing to have this argument.”