Protect and Preserve
Now that we've freaked out about Austin's unrelenting boom, can we figure out how to keep what's best about the city alive?
The cri de coeur went out via social media, as these things do. On the weekend of June 20, reports and rumors flew. Two beloved clubs on Red River Street – Cheer Up Charlies and Mohawk – were in imminent danger. Hyatt Hotels was poised to build an underground garage behind – and possibly destroy – a limestone wall that has been such a defining feature of Cheer Ups and preceding clubs that it should have its own landmark plaque.
The wall's potential instability during construction would force Cheer Ups to curtail its hours. The city was requiring Mohawk to modify a deck. Restricted access and revenue could bankrupt the clubs. The call went out to fight on every front, from calling code enforcement to demanding action from District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo.
Some of these things were true, some weren't, and some are still being sorted out. But, to many, one of the most mystifying aspects of the situation was how this outrage could be taking place in an area that the city had declared an official "cultural district." A fair amount of hoopla surrounded the designation when it was announced in 2013, and journalists, city officials, and involved businesses have taken to identifying the stretch of clubs along Red River between Sixth and 10th streets that way more often than not. Until the Hyatt dustup, however, the protections and benefits of being designated a city cultural heritage district weren't widely known. If, as some are now asking, it doesn't protect the physical environment or health of its businesses, what does it do?
KEEPING IT AUTHENTIC
The simple answer to that question is: not much – yet. On its own, a local CHD designation primarily offers a way to unite and organize property – and business owners within it – branding and marketing opportunities, and maybe a few benefits specific to the district (relaxed parking and loading restrictions for bands and entertainment industry employees, in the case of Red River Cultural District).
In the bigger picture, Austin and its citizens have shown little enthusiasm for historic and cultural preservation beyond individual historic landmark buildings or properties, which are so designated by the city Historic Landmark Commission and include places as varied as the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, the Continental Club, and private family residences. As much as some of us might lament the latest bulldozing or fret over our waning diversity, we lag behind most major cities, even those in Texas, when it comes to using the tools at hand – and developing new ones – to stabilize and support cultural work and preserve our physical history in a meaningful way.
Whether or not we want to deploy those strategies is a different question. The preservation and protection of Austin's culture – or cultures, really – along with its physical history, currently falls to a patchwork of local, state, and national entities, designations, and policies. All act in concert with economic development, with a particular focus on cultural tourism – very few cultural or heritage plans get off the ground without revving our economic engine in some way – and all need more money and more teeth if they are to operate effectively. In the case of Austin, the larger issue is how we can translate a cultural heritage based largely on the scruffy, the off-kilter, the independent, the casual, and the (superficially) unconcerned with mainstream success into a form that keeps it authentic and alive.
The term "heritage" hit a bad patch recently, skidding out on its misappropriation in defense of the indefensible Confederate flag. Still, the conflict did raise questions about what parts of our collective and individual cultural heritages belong in the history books, which ones we want to bring with us into the future, and how we, as a community, decide.
The first cultural heritage district in Austin was, in fact, borne of a particularly racially charged moment in local history. In 2005, in the wake of several high-profile shootings and accusations of excessive force, members of the Austin Police Department publicly transmitted such messages as "burn, baby, burn" and other horrifying reactions as Midtown Live, a club then popular with many black Austinites, burned to the ground.
After the dust settled and the APD investigation was over, the city's response was to launch the African American Quality of Life Initiative to look at ways to address the disparities between how black and white Austinites experience the city. One of its recommendations, which the City Council approved in 2007, was to create and fund the African American Cultural Heritage District in Central East Austin. Lisa Byrd, who has a long history with Austin arts organizations, headed up a 2009 steering committee for the project and eventually became its executive director.
The next year, the Texas Commission on the Arts also launched a statewide cultural district program to drive economic development around cultural tourism. The AACHD was among the first batch and remains the only African-American state cultural district. As is the case with local cultural districts, benefits of the state district designation include the status and resources it offers in terms of marketing and tourism; state designation brings the added bonus of access to state funding. While the Lege neglected to fund the districts upon their establishment or during its next two sessions, the TCA announced July 1 that Gov. Greg Abbott – while vetoing half of the original $10 million proposed in the conference committee budget – approved $5 million for the program for fiscal year 2016.
The state comptroller's office and the TCA are still working out details for distribution of those funds, according to Jim Bob McMillan, deputy director of TCA; a district's ability to demonstrate economic impact will be part of the equation. Currently, the state designation does not offer any protection for buildings or renovation funding, though some districts work with the state's existing programs to get preservation tax credits for work on their historical properties.
The AACHD's borders (see map, above) were largely determined, said Byrd in an interview at the organization's Eastside office, by Austin's 1928 master plan, which "forced black people who lived all over the city to move to this area." As a result, most of the "existing cultural assets" of Austin's African-American community are in the same area, she said. "The footprint of the district is a little larger than the original 'Negro District,' as they called it then, but it encompasses that [area]."
Working with city funding and private donations, the AACHD has already jump-started a number of preservation projects and envisions many more. It sponsors ongoing programs, including bus tours of the district and an interactive heritage map. The organization has fought to get the Rosewood Courts housing project on the National Register of Historic Places, rather than being replaced with mixed-income housing. The district is also working on preservation projects at Downs Field and three African-American cemeteries.
Byrd also noted that past public policy has "dismantled African-American culture" and that today the city is "hemorrhaging black people"; she also addressed to the possibility of the district's becoming a sort of staid, inactive "museum" neighborhood – much as central Paris is sometimes called a "museum city" – rather than supporting and cultivating a culture that is still vibrant and moving forward.
"It's important," she said, to "look at the things that drove the population out. From our point of view, stop the cultural genocide, and then we'll have a place to have that conversation. Stop knocking down or selling off; stop all the policies, from redevelopment to gentrification, all those policies that have literally destroyed this community.
"In terms of the built environment, there's little to nothing left," she continued. "So we can't really create a museum because those no longer exist." It's important to "re-animate those spaces," she said, "to say that these are our cultural spaces, and they do have meaning and value. And then: How do we continue to create cultural spaces?"
Part of the solution, as with so many things, is economic. "Art and culture are economic engines," said Byrd. "That's the way Austin sells itself. We hope that through our programs we can build a certain type of vitality that will interest black people in coming back into Central East Austin. When black people come back, the businesses will follow."
Harold McMillan, founder and director of nonprofit DiverseArts, also said in a phone interview that the black-owned and -operated businesses currently in the district, especially along its commercial corridors, are important to its vitality. McMillan operates Kenny Dorham's Backyard, a city-owned lot adjacent to the Victory Grill on East 11th Street that boasts regular live blues, jazz, soul, and rock shows, as well as a number of food trucks, and is probably one of the most diverse business areas on the street.
McMillan said that the AACHD's mission includes stimulating economic development as a way to "celebrate culture and cultural production in a contemporary sense" in addition to preserving the district's heritage. He also pointed to the revival of black-owned businesses on Rosewood Avenue and East 12th Street and said he is hopeful about the Austin Revitalization Authority's renovation of the Herman Schieffer House building on Navasota Street, an office complex that could be home to black-owned businesses.
The end game, though, is not simply to revive an arts-based Eastside economy; it's to reconnect people to a community. "It's a concept called 'cultural placemaking,'" said Byrd. "When all your cultural touchstones are removed, you are no longer tied to a place. If we animate the cultural touchstones, there will be a reason to come."
RED RIVER RULES
While the Red River Cultural District carries the same designation as the AACHD (on the city level only for now, but it will vie for state designation in the fall), some of the issues it faces are almost the opposite – rather than revitalizing a cultural legacy, its task is to protect one from the consequences of its own success.
The first big sign that Things Were Going to Be Different for the thriving live-music zone on Red River between Sixth and 10th streets was probably in 2008, when the Red River Flats (now the Beverly) were built across from Mohawk and what was then Club DeVille and is now Cheer Ups. Things ended relatively happily; the residential developers built or helped build soundproofing at their building and at Mohawk, while the latter agreed to end its outdoor live shows by midnight.
Next up was a new city sound ordinance, which curbed hours for amplified noise. Then there was former Council Member Sheryl Cole's pet project, which resulted in a flood-mitigating tunnel and redevelopment plans for Waller Creek, which runs behind the east side of the street.
"We knew as a music community that change was coming," said Jennifer Houlihan, executive director of Austin Music People, a nonprofit advocacy group and driving force behind the RRCD. "With Waller Creek coming up out of the flood plain, that land was going to become incredibly valuable, and almost all of those folks down that strip have short-term leases." The idea of the district, she said, was to underscore the importance of music to Austin's culture and the uniqueness of that particular row of live music clubs and to find ways to incorporate that heritage into new development.
The RRCD also wanted to give club owners an opportunity for collective marketing – a strategy that in the eyes of some might have had the unintended consequence of providing a branding tool for developers. Clubs Holy Mountain and Red 7 both found themselves negotiating steep rent hikes with their next lease renewals, and Holy Mountain lost that battle (see "Playback: Holy Mountain Closing Oct. 1," June 26).
According to Houlihan, AMP originally considered calling the area a "live music heritage district," but changed it both to align with the state cultural districts program and because "we wanted to leave the doors open – we wanted restaurants to come there, and art galleries and anybody else who might be inspired" to do so. The official state designation is "cultural district," but an individual district has the option of clarifying the nature of the cultural focus – heritage, music, arts, etc. – without affecting its benefits or district status.) She added that AMP decided early on to "fight for the businesses and the music rather than the buildings. We did not want to do anything to stop development; we're not anti-growth."
Rather, AMP focuses on keeping music, or at least the idea of it – in the form of, say, a record store or a rock & roll coffee shop – in the area by rolling it in with new development. "Whatever comes next, we'd like music to be a part of it. We want to be the ones to say, 'Hey, welcome to Red River,'" said Houlihan, "and, 'Can we have a venue on the ground floor of your building?' Those are the conversations we want to have."
Houlihan holds that the area's musical heritage – and even its music – can be preserved and protected under a wide variety of circumstances, including the introduction of high-rise residential buildings in the area. Don Pitts, music and entertainment division manager for the city's economic development department, is more skeptical about that happening without zoning restrictions.
"There has been a great deal of work behind the scenes by various folks on getting real and substantial support for the Red River District," said Pitts in an email, but "a new development incorporating a live music or entertainment component without an overlay of some type that makes it a requirement won't happen. I'm a fan of using an overlay similar to the Pecan Street overlay" – designed to protect the historic nature and pedestrian experience of East Sixth/Pecan Street – "coupled with zoning restrictions."
PROTECT, ENHANCE, PRESERVE
Pitts' comment hits upon a bottom-line reality of Austin preservation efforts. Currently, the best way to protect the physical character of a sought-after area is to make it a "historic district," which adds a historic zoning overlay to the existing zoning in a district, or to create a combining overlay with a specific purpose unique to that area, such as the one Pitts refers to.
Local historic districts exist to "protect, enhance, and preserve" such areas – including their "defining characteristics" – explained the Historic Preservation Office's Beth Johnson during a recent phone interview. The designation, initiated by a neighborhood or district, involves the creation of design standards to keep the character of the neighborhood intact – these apply to new development or renovations, and protect existing "contributing" elements (historic or nonhistoric buildings, properties, or objects that contribute to the district's character) from demolition or inappropriate alteration. Local historic districts also offer tax abatements for renovating structures within them.
Austin has only three such local districts – Hyde Park, Castle Hill, and Harthan Street – with a fourth, Travis Heights' Bluebonnet Hills, still moving through city paperwork. (The city has 17 districts recorded in the National Register of Historic Places, but those emphasize recognition – plaques and prestige – rather than protection. Technically, the city doesn't require that demolition or alteration of included properties go through the local Historic Landmark Commission*, though in reality such permits do when it comes to old structures – especially those more than 100 years old.) Austin neighborhoods have largely resisted those designations, despite the property protection and potential tax abatements or renovation funds that could be made available. This is partly due to usually unsubstantiated fears about loss of property rights; equally likely is that Austinites, many of whom still wear shorts and sneakers to fine-dining establishments, find the concept stuffy and elitist, bringing to mind garden clubs and Village Green Preservation societies.
That point of view is baffling to Kate Singleton, executive director of Preservation Austin, a local nonprofit that advocates on preservation issues for "everything from funding more staff at the city level to working with neighborhoods that want to become local historic districts," she said in a phone interview; the group's motto is "Saving the Good Stuff." She believes a large part of the resistance can be overcome by doing more to walk neighborhoods through the process.
Singleton has decades of experience in preservation work, particularly in Dallas, and she admitted that she was "flummoxed" when she learned that Austin residents don't seem overly interested in historic districts. Not only do they give neighborhoods a great deal of self-determination, she pointed out, but they can also support affordability in central-city neighborhoods by limiting demolition of current housing stock to make way for more intensive development.
Singleton also said that there are many low- to mid-income historic districts she helped develop in Dallas and Fort Worth, and that those designations can help preserve the traditional culture of a neighborhood as well as its buildings. "Overarching the architectural, you have to take into account the cultural importance of the area," she said.
She acknowledged that, as in the case of Central East Austin, a large part of both physical and cultural environments in some of those neighborhoods had been destroyed. Still, like Byrd, she maintained that "the people who live in the houses may change, but it's important to recognize history and to hang on to the built environment" as much as possible to "get a better sense of what the neighborhood was. In Austin, when you truly start to understand that there was a conscious effort by the city to make everybody who was not white decamp to [one] side of town, those places provide a very, very important history."
Of course, a built environment isn't always necessary to document and preserve a history of a place. The Tejano Walking & Music Legends Trail, for instance, takes its followers to locations of all kinds. "[A historic site] may not always have a building attached to it," said Singleton, "but the cultural history is important. There are so many people moving into Austin that don't understand the history of the city, and they're curious about it. Austin is a big tourism town. We offer them a taste of the history of the city that goes beyond 'This is the capital of Texas.'"
The city also preserves and protects its creative heritage in ways that allow the discovery and reinvention of new spaces. Through many years and planning processes, Austin has aspired to create cultural arts districts – not linked to heritage or place, but to our defining creative character. In 2013, City Council approved the thinkEAST Creative District PUD, a 24-acre site on a former gas tank farm that Eastside activist group People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources was able to get closed, cleaned, and rezoned in the Eighties.
With a grant from ArtPlace America and collaboration among local arts group Fusebox, the city, landowners, investors, architects, and, most important, the Govalle and Johnston Terrace neighborhoods, thinkEAST is creating a vision for the district that could include "affordable housing, live/work spaces for artists, studios, parks, and retail spaces," according to Janet Seibert, the city's Economic Development Department Cultural Arts Division's Civic Arts program consultant, in a phone interview. She added that the city is using a number of tools – including mapping, computer modeling, and researching creative-friendly building codes – to help support districts and "creative space development."
One of the newest groups to jump on board to try to activate some of those tools – one mentioned by Seibert, Houlihan, and Pitts – is the Soul-y Austin Business District Incubator, established under the city's Economic Development Department with the aim of supporting and stabilizing commercial districts through the creation of merchants' associations. RRCD businesses, including Stubb's, Mohawk, and Cheer Up Charlies, recently met to discuss the idea of banding together as a merchant association, the Austin Monitor reported. The AACHD is also expected to participate in the project.
THE THINGS WE KEEP
When looking at places that might be "right for a cultural district," Seibert said, she "wants it to be grassroots-up." Articulating an anxiety that haunts many Austinites engaged in and aware of what we lose, what we keep, and how we grow, she said: "I've watched Austin grow and continue to grow, and I get concerned sometimes about our authenticity. So I'm always looking to community to determine what is important, not just economically, but socially."
The ongoing conundrum is how to hold on to those things – to preserve and protect – without becoming a city that seems like it's either an amusement-park version of itself or trapped in amber. When asked via email about that quandary, Cornell University assistant professor Jennifer Minner, who wrote her UT planning/architecture doctoral dissertation about reinvestment and adaptation along Austin's commercial strips, responded: "The idea that historic preservation necessarily produces 'open air museums' is more myth than reality. The vibrant character of Austin is fed by many acts of reinvestment and stewardship. In Austin, I interacted with many neighborhood residents who care deeply about their neighborhood. Many are motivated by the loss of cherished places and the desire to protect the neighborhood from negative changes that can lead to a loss of character. Historic districts elevate the historic and cultural value of a neighborhood, while ensuring that new infill fits in with existing urban fabric."
It's also important to remember, as Seibert pointed out, the cyclical and temporal nature of these things. Referencing Peter Hall's book Cities in Civilization, she pointed to the inevitable rise and fall of particular cultures and cultural activities, even in Austin: "In the early days, theatre was a big thing. Music came into being because this was an affordable place to live, and there was an ecology that supported the development of music from the ground up. At some point, gaming and technology came here. Usually cities have just one art form that they excel in, and usually it has a 20-year life span. Now we have multiple art forms, and they may last a little longer. But there's a life cycle to these things."
Editor's note: This story has been amended since publication to show Harthan Street is not in Clarksville; rather it is part of the West Line National Register Historic District.
In addition, an earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the "burn, baby, burn" remarks in 2005 in part to members of the Austin Fire Department. Only members of the Austin Police Department were implicated in the scandal.
This story has also been amended to clarify that a "historic district" designation doesn't require that existing buildings be modified to meet design standards for the district when it is established – they just kick in when they want to modify or demo them later.
*The author clarifies that while city code does require that any demolition and alteration of contributing properties in the National Register Historic Districts, as well as new construction, be reviewed by the Historic Landmark Commission, the review is advisory, but is not a formal decision voted on during an HLC committee meeting, as are demo permits for city landmarks.