Landmark commission commends study of historic East Austin

Report identifies as many as 24 potential historic districts.

The formal action was not required.

Yet on Monday, the Austin Historic Landmark Commission unanimously endorsed a study that would make it easier to set up historic districts — and for individual structures to acquire landmark status — in East Austin.

“It’s cumbersome, time consuming and pretty daunting to apply for landmark status,” said Kalan Contreras, a city of Austin planner who briefed the group on the recently completed East Austin Historic Resources Survey. “This is a good collective resource to use as a starting point.”

The study, described as a comprehensive “snapshot,” will go to the Austin City Council in December. It identifies 24 potential historic districts in East Austin.

Initiated in 2015, the study, which comes in at more than 1,000 pages, considers in great detail the historical context of the evolving communities that settled from 1839 to 1970 in East Austin, defined for the study’s purposes as the area bounded by Lady Bird Lake to the south, Manor Road to the north, Interstate 35 to the west and a line that includes Pleasant Valley Road and the MetroRail line to the east.

It identifies existing structures that could qualify for local or national protected status, more than 80 percent of which are residences. It doesn’t change any current zoning or start a rezoning process, yet the study goes further than similar surveys conducted in 1984 and 2000 in providing the tools for those hoping to salvage the traditional textures of East Austin neighborhoods.

The briefing was timely. Before Contreras spoke, the commission approved without discussion more than 30 potential demolition permits — while in some cases encouraging voluntary rehabilitation, adaptive reuse or relocation — out of more than 50 cases presented by the city’s historic preservation officer, Steve Sadowsky. Many of those are in East Austin, which for historical, cultural and economic reasons counts fewer landmarks than some other of the city’s older districts.

“I am pleased with the thoroughness of the report,” Commissioner Sarah Valenzuela said. “And with the steps the city of Austin has taken to document the significant contributions of African-Americans and Mexican-Americans to our community. I am optimistic that the report will encourage efforts already underway and serve as a call to action to recognize and preserve the vibrant history of East Austin.”

The study, prepared by Hardy-Heck-Moore Inc., an Austin-based historic preservation company, with input from the public and groups such as the Texas Historical Commission, prioritizes areas with higher “resource concentration” and demolition rates.

“The survey will help preservation in East Austin in several ways,” Commissioner Emily Reed said. “It includes an excellent historic context — detailing trends specific to East Austin — that we hope will be a jumping-off point for those interested in pursuing formal historic designation for properties and districts, either at the city or national level. Tackling that research can be intimidating, and the survey has covered that groundwork.”

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