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    Some Thoughts on the Audit of Austin’s Historic Preservation Program

    Thanks to my long-suffering and loving wife and children I was able to attend yesterday’s Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee hearing.  The centerpiece of the meeting was the presentation of the city auditor’s most recent audit of the historic preservation department.

    Jo Clifton of the Austin Monitor also attended the meeting and filed this report.  The official website of the Austin City Auditor can be found here.

    Ms. Clifton could and perhaps should have interviewed me, particularly since I not only have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on many occasions over the years, particularly concerning Rosewood Courts and the Montopolis Negro School—two rather controversial cases—but also because I am one of the city’s leading historic preservation professionals, with decades of experience.  But I digress; my main desire in this blog post is to talk about how to improve the city’s management of historic properties, not necessarily to critique the Austin Monitor’s biased reporting.  That said, I do feel compelled to say one thing about the story.  In a paragraph nearly half-way through her story Clifton observes:

    In addition, the audit said that some members of the Historic Landmark Commission lack the training they need to make well-informed decisions. As a result of the November election, the commission has two new members who replaced members considered opposed to historic preservation in general, and the city’s programs in particular. So, it is not clear whether the problem was really about lack of education in those two instances.

    Clifton is incorrect; it is clear.  Neither Arif Panju nor David Whitworth met (or meet) the Secretary of the Interior’s qualifications guidelines in the field of historic preservation.  Mr. Panju is a “constitutional lawyer,” a term probably made most popular by former President Barack Obama, but hardly a profession, and certainly not one meeting the practical field experience requirements expected of most historic preservation professionals.  As for Mr. Whitworth, as Sheri Gallo’s appointee it was always clear what interest he truly represented:  minimally regulated real estate development.  He does not meet the guidelines either, neither in terms of education nor experience.

    As the audit notes, Austin’s professional guidelines for service on the Historic Landmark Commission are not mandatory, but advisory only.  This is an exception to standard practice in other cities, one that should be remedied.

    Clifton’s report also addresses the audit finding that the department is understaffed, both in real and absolute terms in comparison to peer cities.  That too needs fixing, but even a fully staffed department won’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong, in my opinion.  In the end the problems are political, not administrative.

    We can haggle about the details, but any true fix of Austin’s historic preservation department must do the following:

    1.  Properly staff the department with historians, architects, archaeologists and support personnel.  The audit strongly suggests that 4 people isn’t enough; a minimum of 8-10 is better and in keeping with best practice.
    2.  Increase the department’s non-personnel budget substantially.  My initial recommendation is $2-5 million dollars.  Having enough people isn’t enough.  They need to have the tools in order to do their job.  Once that’s done, they need to be respected as the highly qualified professionals they are.
    3. The city must make it clear that it follows the National Register criteria.  It should also make clear to non-specialists what those criteria are and how they are professionally applied.  If the city chooses to follow another standard, it should develop it, properly vet it, and make it public.
    4.  Most importantly, the city’s historic preservation officer must report directly to the city manager, by-passing the chain of command at the department of planning and zoning.  Anyone with common sense knows why this was done in the first place, and whose interests it serves.

    The landmarking criteria themselves should not need much revision, if any.  Historic preservation judgments are ultimately subjective, but this is not to say that these are endlessly contingent; it takes skills and the ability to evaluate empirical evidence to document and reach conclusions about historic properties.  In Austin’s case, judgments about community value are ultimately political judgments.  City councillors are elected to make such decisions.

    In order for members of the city council to reach proper conclusions they should be furnished with sound information reflecting the best professional competencies of city officials.  Unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in the leadership of the Planning and Zoning department should not be in a bureaucratic position to thwart or frustrate what should be fact and standards based historic preservation discussions and debates.

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    Historic Preservation in Austin—Some Initial Thoughts

    Most local observers understand that the way Austin does historic preservation—actually how it does not do historic preservation—is in need of a significant upgrade.  The city has simply grown too large for the small town approach pioneered by the late Betty Baker in the mid 1970’s.  At it’s Thursday, January 26, 2017 meeting Austin’s city council voted to enact a small but important change to how the city’s Historic Landmark Commission can vote to enact the historic zoning of a property.  Earlier that week I sent an email to the city council and various staffers in support of making the change.  I reproduce that email below:

    Dear Mayor and Austin City Council,

    I am writing to respectfully request that you support the resolution appearing as Item #46 at tomorrow’s city council meeting.  Councilmember Tovo’s resolution is a step in the right direction and deserves your support.  I am delighted that the resolution has garnered so many co-sponsors.

    As one of the first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology, and as the president of the only African-American and Disabled Veteran owned and operated archaeological consulting company in the United States, I am well acquainted with our city’s historic preservation regulations and practices, as well as the state and federal laws from which they tier.  I have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on numerous occasions over the years, especially over the past 5 years, mainly in a pro-bono capacity.  As you are probably aware, I am one of our city’s leading African-American historic preservation advocates.

    Our city’s historic preservation program badly needs top-to-bottom reform, and a plurality of the current Historic Landmark Commission membership, including the current chairwoman, agree.  As background, if you have not yet read it, this December 18, 2016 article in the Austin American-Statesman documents that the year 2016 was not a good year for this commission.

    Setting aside the larger issue of proper reform for another day, I ask that you keep your focus on what Councilmember Tovo’s resolution actually does and avoid the tendency to engage in casuistry.  This resolution is not about the Historic Landmark Commission’s inability to hold meetings due to a lack of quorum; it is specifically focused on the existence of a unique and unfair disparate standard requiring a supermajority of votes in order to achieve an affirmative vote.  Such a prejudicial requirement is unique to this commission and is undemocratic and should be terminated.

    Ladies and Gentlemen of the Austin City Council, I hope you agree that it is unnecessary as well as unwise to wantonly destroy our city’s cultural heritage in order to satisfy our city’s economic development objectives.  Please think deeply about this matter and familiarize yourself with examples from other U.S. and international cities regarding this issue.  As always, I stand ready to assist if asked.

    Sincerely,

    Fred L. McGhee, Ph.D.


    Now that Councilmember Tovo’s resolution has passed (9-2 in favor with Councilmembers Troxclair and Garza voting against), I offer the following intial thoughts as food for discussion going forward.

    1.  The Historic Landmark Commission’s zoning vote regarding the Montopolis Negro School was 7-1 in favor of historic zoning.  But had that vote passed, I would have opposed it afterward.  Here’s why:  the zoning resolution sponsored by Commissioner Terri Myers was a “compromise” that not only ignored the property’s historical significance as a cultural landscape—something that the National Register rules the city claims to follow require analyzing and making recommendations about—it would have allowed the property’s current owner, real estate developer Austin Stovell, to move the building from its original location, thereby deliberately destroying the historic integrity of the historical site.  The commission should not be in the business of making half-cocked and ad hoc decisions based upon deliberately incomplete information.
    2. This Historic Landmark Commission has many other problems.  One noteworthy problem is this:  unqualified people serving on the commission.  The city’s rules recommend, but do not require, that the people serving on this commission at a minimum meet the minimum professional guidelines specified by the Secretary of the Interior.  Arif Panju, the most divisive commissioner, at least met the requirement of being a lawyer, but what were commissioner David Whitworth’s credentials in the field of historic preservation?  The effort to stack this commission with real estate agents and developers was and remains a problem.
    3. As I have been saying now for years, the city’s historic preservation officer should be a stand-alone position that reports directly to the city manager.  That’s how San Antonio does it, as well as other cities.  The placement of this position inside the Planning and Zoning department is a deliberate effort on the part of Austin’s always-ruling real estate clique to unfairly stack the deck in their favor.

    There are many other things that need to change, including the proper staffing of the department as well as other challenges, such as an almost complete lack of focus on archaeological sites located on public as well as private land.  The City of Austin cares more about heritage trees, and taxpayers fund several arborists on the city payroll, but to date the city has never funded a staff archaeologist.

    To get a sense of how other cities do it better, take a look at the historic preservation departments for the cities of San Antonio (notice that a member of the city’s code enforcement department focuses exclusively on historic buildings), Seattle (Seattle has a “Department of Neighborhoods” that manages community involvement far more effectively than Austin’s silly “Contact Team” idea), and Boston (the City of Boston leverages its many local universities and sponsors archaeological digs at sites such as the historic Malcolm X House).

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    An Open Letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler

    Dear Mayor Adler:

    As a strong supporter of yours I watched the recent establishment of a task force on institutional racism with considerable interest.  I would respectfully like to bring an example of institutional racism to your attention.

    At issue is the property located at 500 Montopolis Drive.  It is one of the most important African-American historic sites in the city and is the location of the Montopolis Negro School, an important artifact of segregated education in Austin and Travis County.  The school building and its surrounding landscape, along with the historic Burditt Prairie Cemetery, are the two most important African-American historic sites in the Montopolis neighborhood.  You can learn more about the history of the school by downloading a copy of the presentation I delivered before the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday, November 28th, 2016 here:  mcghee-montopolis-presentation.

    The intact survival of the school is now in peril.  The current property owner purchased the property in 2015 and intends to construct non-affordable and historically unsympathetic spec housing at the site.  He has applied for a demolition permit.  He has also strangely attempted to portray himself as a victim of the neighborhood and its residents, when in fact he has acted haughtily and in bad faith and is perceived as a perpetrator.

    Some historic context helps to shed light on the history of institutional racism I am alleging.  At the time of the 1900 census Montopolis was a rural agricultural area mainly populated by African-American cotton plantation workers.  The population at the time was enumerated at 142 persons.  According to a 1907 survey the area had two county operated schools, one for whites which had 9 pupils and the Montopolis Negro School, originally established around 1891, which consisted of a classic one-room country schoolhouse for 108 segregated black students.

    In 1935 the original Negro school building was destroyed in a storm.  In what was a sign of a clear racial double standard, Travis County refused to rebuild or replace the school, leaving black students in Montopolis without education.  Realizing the untenability of the situation, the congregation of Montopolis’ St. Edward’s Baptist Church agreed to donate land for a replacement school and also secured a former army barracks building to serve as a replacement one-room schoolhouse.  A copy of the April, 1935 transfer deed can be downloaded here:  1935-montopolis-negro-school-deed.

    When the City of Austin started annexing Montopolis in 1952, responsibility for the school’s operation was transferred from the Colorado School District to the Austin Free Public Schools, the precursor to Austin ISD.  Austin ISD shuttered the Negro school in 1962 and directed parents to send their students to schools in East Austin as the newly constructed Allison Elementary School was still mostly segregated.  A copy of the 1952 deed transfering the property to Austin ISD can be downloaded here:  montopolis-negro-school-1952-deed.

    Did Austin ISD re-gift or sell the donated land back to St. Edward’s Baptist Church?  It did not.  It placed the property up for auction.  It was eventually purchased by Ross and David Willhoite in 1967.  The Willhoites converted the school building into the Montopolis Church of Christ and established a trust to run it, which explains the wording currently located near the building’s front entrance, but the church was never successful and attendance was never high.

    montopolis-church-of-christ

    St. Edward’s Baptist Church, which is the oldest African-American Baptist church in Travis County still in continuous operation, was located at 400 Montopolis Drive between 1897 and 1990.  Before that it was located near the Burditt Prairie Cemetery.  In a final act of institutional racism, the City of Austin condemned the church property in 1990, forcing the historic church, which had been constructed with materials from the original church building from the 1860’s to eventually relocate to its current location at 708 Montopolis Drive.  The property at 400 Montopolis Drive, now vacant, is currently owned by—you guessed it—David Willhoite.

    The use of the city’s eminent domain power in this case was accompanied by efforts on the part of city planners to extend Grove Boulevard to Montopolis Drive.  This is why the city currently owns a significantly sized road easement through the property.  This was and remains another example of disrespectful and unmindful land use decisions on the part of the city that is soaked with the foul stench of institutional racism.

    400-500-montopolis-lots

    What is the solution at this point?  Given the unscrupulous history of institutional racism described here, we believe that the city, county and school district bear direct moral responsibility for making this situation right.

    The community believes that this property should be historically preserved in situ and the area turned into a park similar to other parks with buildings in our existing parks system.  To be clear, we believe that the property is a cultural landscape–it was used for Juneteenth celebrations by the Burditt’s Prairie Freedmen’s community as well as for other community purposes.  Simply focusing, therefore, on the preservation of the school building in order to accommodate the real estate development desires of the current owner would be short-sighted and a mistake.  It would also violate the National Register eligibility standards the city claims to follow in historic landmark cases.

    Mr. Mayor, the Montopolis neighborhood appreciated your visit to our community during your 2014 run for office.  As a fellow city council candidate I took great pleasure in co-hosting your visit and in placing a copy of my then newly released book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood into your hand.  I took similar pleasure in supporting your run for mayor afterward.  We believe your commitment to doing something about institutional racism in Austin to be sincere and ask for your help in putting right the historical injustices described in my book and in this letter.

    Many thanks for taking the time to read this epistle.  Best wishes for continued success in the weeks and months ahead.

    Fred L. McGhee, Ph.D.

    President, Carson Ridge Neighborhood Association
    Founding President, Montopolis Neighborhood Association
    Board, Burditt Prairie Cemetery Association
    Member Austin Community Development Commission
    Author, Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood and other works

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    The Montopolis Negro School Revisited

    Last week’s meeting of the Austin Historic Landmark Commission was once again a wash.  Only seven commissioners showed up, enough for a quorum but not enough for the supermajority required on the 500 Montopolis Drive matter.  A supermajority is required because the present property owner opposes the historic landmarking of the school property.  The item was postponed to a special called meeting tonight at 7:00 p.m. (19:00 for you world time folks).

    Regrettably, city staff have declared public comment concerning this zoning case to be “closed” despite the fact that the item has been postponed multiple times and at least 2-3 commissionders have never heard the item due to their lack of attendance.  That number goes up by one commissioner if the empty seat for Councilmember Sabino “Pio” Renteria is included; he has not made an appointment to this commission.

    Had I been offered the opportunity to speak at tonight’s meeting, here is some of what I would have presented.  There are two main points of emphasis I would have made:

    1.  This property is a cultural landscape.  The National Register guidelines, which the city claims to follow, require proper consideration of such landscapes.
    2.   The city and county bear a heavy moral responsibility for their historical mistreatment of St. Edward’s Baptist church and the African-American property owners of 400 and 500 Montopolis Drive.  Not only did the school district not return the land that was originally donated by the church in 1935, the city condemned the original location of the church in 1990 and took the property via eminent domain and sold it.  In both cases it was David Willhoite who purchased the property.

    Gentrification today relies on “the market” to change the race and class composition of neighborhoods.  This looks to be more of an example of old fashioned municipal racism at work.  You can download a copy of my presentation here:

    mcghee-montopolis-presentation

    After tonight this item will go on to the Planning Commission and then to the Austin City Council.  I expect to be able to present this important material at those meetings because “public comment” is not as assiduously and self-servingly restricted there because people actually show up for meetings.

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    The Montopolis Negro School

    On Monday November 21st at 7:00 p.m. the City of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission will meet to consider historically zoning the last remaining rural Negro school in Travis County, the Montopolis Negro School.

    A photograph of the school is in my 2014 book Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood.  The school was founded in about 1891 at a location along Bastrop Highway and was moved to its present location on land donated by St. Edward’s Baptist Church in 1935.

    Gentrification in Montopolis is taking place at an accelerating clip.  No more vacant land is left, and several long time residents have already accepted buyouts.  The location of the school offers panoramic views of downtown and any units constructed there will fetch premium prices.

    The history of the school is not in question.  One of many things at issue is the status of this property as a cultural landscape, not just as a historic building.  Separating buildings from their context may make thorny historic preservation debates easier to manage, but it also does violence to a place’s historic associations and the community fabric.  Also important is that much of the land at the site continues to be owned by the City of Austin, which condemned the St. Edward’s Baptist Church located next door in 1990, forcing the church to move to its present location at 708 Montopolis Drive.

    Please write a letter of support to the Historic Landmark Commissioners and to Steve Sadowsky, the city’s Historic Preservation Officer (who has recommended historic zoning).  You can watch a brief You Tube video of the school’s history here.

     

    montopolis-church-of-christ