Living History

Can Rosewood Courts preserve its history and accommodate its current residents at the same time?

Photos by John Anderson

A compact living room features exposed wiring along white brick walls. Uncovered above the kitchen sink are stained yellow sewer pipes that lead to the upstairs bathroom. Narrow brown steps end not in a hallway, but an abrupt three doors. The breeze from an A/C unit installed in a downstairs window fails to travel up to the second floor, where, come summer, the Texas heat will be unbearable. Outside, shirts and pants pinned to a drying rack float in the wind; the home is not equipped with a dryer hookup.

Residents of Rosewood Courts, a public housing complex flanked by Chicon and Salina streets, live in modest conditions. With the aging property becoming increasingly laborious to maintain, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) plans to tear down most of the existing complex, and redevelop the central East Austin site into a mixed-use housing project with modern amenities.

"I would like to see Rosewood redeveloped. Things need to be changed for people that have to live here," says 38-year-old Taneka Perkins, a tenant of four years. "Some of the things I've seen here would not be safe a couple of years from now." Perkins points to curious children wanting to play with the exposed pipes as one example. She and other residents must pay out-of-pocket for household basics like A/C window units and fans. And simple comforts like decorating with family photos are made difficult by the painted brick walls.

But the plan to transform Rosewood has been put on hold. On Feb. 25, City Council voted 8-0-3 (Council Members Don Zimmerman, Pio Renteria, and Sheri Gallo abstaining), to initiate historic zoning for Rosewood Courts. A resolution sponsored by District 1 Council Member Ora Houston would prevent HACA from making changes to the complex's exterior and severely limit new construction.

The housing authority contends that if the entire property falls under historic zoning, fewer residents will be served, the antithesis of the agency's mission. Propon­ents of historic zoning counter that claim, saying that if creative thinking is applied, enough upgrades can still be made within the limits of what the designation allows. Moreover, they argue, tearing down the complex would further erode the cultural identity of an area already feeling the impact of gentrification and loss of community.

Outdated and Overdue

The debate over Rosewood Courts has pitted historic preservationists against the city's housing authority, creating marked tension between the two groups – evident at the February Council hearing and beyond. Openly critical of HACA and housing authorities in general, historical anthropologist Fred McGhee helped spearhead the effort for historical designation in 2012. Leading the activist group Preserve Rose­wood, McGhee submitted a lengthy application to place Rosewood on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. While the city's Historic Landmark Commission endorsed the nomination, they declined to move forward with historic zoning in a 3-3 vote last August. McGhee considers the latest Council vote a victory in a long, hard-fought process. "This property so overwhelmingly meets the criteria under our local historic ordinances as well as the federal National Register guidelines, I don't see how [the Commission] can make any other decision," he says.

The loudest voice against the redevelopment plan, McGhee says the desire of Rosewood's residents to see it demolished is simply "fog" and that HACA didn't involve the public, at least initially – a complaint from other opponents of the project, as well. That's because, he argues, the plan has been in the works for a while. "Rosewood has been targeted by City Hall for privatization and marketization for years," says McGhee. However, the Rosewood Resident Council (RRC) supported a U.S. Housing and Urban Development Choice Neigh­bor­hoods Planning Grant application as early as April 2012; the $300,000 in federal funds is going toward redevelopment plans for Rosewood. The resident-led RRC also signed off on a resolution in March 2015, reiterating their support, and stating that HACA held 15 resident meetings and seven community meetings.

Matt Bragg, president of the RRC, says HACA has encouraged the public to be involved and held several meetings about the possible transition. "They absolutely want full participation from everybody," says Bragg, a senior citizen who has lived at Rosewood for seven years. While there are some outliers, Bragg says the majority of residents support the plan. "A few of them want it to stay like it is, but not me, I'm for progress." Having experienced life in the U.S. as an African-American before the Civil Rights era, Bragg wonders why residents today should have to struggle with the same substandard living conditions. For Bragg, upgrading Rosewood is long overdue. "The plumbing is outdated, the heating system is outdated, there is no A/C. It was built in 1937 and I was born in 1935 – we've both been around for a long time," he says with a hearty laugh.

Perkins admits some residents are wary of supporting the project because they're skeptical of it actually coming to fruition. "Some of them are scared to step out and say what I'm saying. They're discouraged because no action has been taken since the plan was announced years ago." On pause, the project is even further delayed now, frustrating advocates of redevelopment like Perkins. "It really upset me – it almost makes you want to give up," she says of the Council vote.

McGhee and others argue the interior of the complex can still be upgraded if historic zoning is granted. "The claim that improvements can't be made is false," says McGhee. He points to passive Green Building design as the foremost option; the environmentally sustainable plan would increase energy efficiency and reduce utility bills. But that's far from enough of an improvement for HACA officials, who say the complex is in dire need of an all-out redevelopment. "They were wonderful at the time they were built, but now they are 76 years old. The needs of families today are different," says Sylvia Blanco, HACA executive vice president.

Fred McGhee

Constructed of cinder block brick in the Thirties, the complex suffers from deteriorating gas lines, mildew buildup from humidity, no ducts to retrofit A/C, and no clothes dryers or other modern amenities. And since the brick exterior is not framed construction (think drywall) it can't be expanded easily, making historic zoning a major restriction on improvement. And gutting the complex to refurbish it, says Blanco, would turn the 124 units into 80, reducing much-needed affordable housing stock. "If we were to modernize all the units from the interior and get them up to current code we would end up losing about a third of our units," she says.

But that list of building defects is also a consistent refrain from critics of HACA and Rosewood redevelopment: The complex was neglected by HACA and now the housing authority is trying to tear down a problem they created. The rebuttal is less simplistic – while on one hand, the housing authority recognizes the antiquated units need serious upgrading, it also contends it's done everything possible to maintain a "decent, safe, and sanitary" complex, receiving a high score on its latest HUD inspection. HACA says keeping a more-than-seven-decades-old housing property maintained takes an enormous amount of energy and expense. And with $25 million in unmet capital needs combined with declining federal dollars to operate public housing, the problem is only expected to worsen. "Yes, Rosewood is not falling down around us, it's not dilapidated," says Blanco. "We can go in there and try to maintain what we have, but is that really fair to our residents who do not have basic, modern amenities that most of us take for granted? It would be like putting a Band-Aid on the property. We can and want to do better for our residents."

Cultural Touchstone

It's undeniable that Rosewood Courts hold historical and cultural significance. The first African-American public housing complex in the nation, the Courts were constructed in 1937 (and opened in 1939) as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, after lobbying efforts by then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson. Along with Rosewood, the housing authority designated Santa Rita Courts for Latinos and Chalmers Courts for whites, as Austin was still segregated at the time. Inspired by European design elements, the barrack-style Rosewood Courts were built on the site of Emancipation Park, grounds for the local Juneteenth parade. For some, its proposed demolition is an offense to the rich heritage of African-Americans in East Aus­tin, who have already experienced heavy displacement due to rising property costs and rapid gentrification. Austin stands as the only major, fast-growing city with a shrinking African-American population, according to a 2014 UT-Austin study based on U.S. Census Bureau data. While the city's population grew by 20.4%, the black population declined by 5.4%, largely pushed out to surrounding towns due to lack of affordable housing.

"We have lost the majority of our cultural touchstones in this community," says Lisa Byrd, executive director of Austin's African American Cultural Heritage District. Byrd points to East 11th Street's dwindling number of black-owned businesses as one instance. "And this will be added to the list of places that no longer reflect African-American contribution to Austin. As we try to search realistically to figure out why the African-American population is declining, we should remember that when cultural points are destroyed, it's less likely that culture is going to want to hang around."

Ora Houston

Resolution sponsor Ora Houston echoes the concerns, saying the denial of historic zoning would be a "blow to the history of black East Austin." An advocate for the designation since 2012, Houston also believes that the plan to demolish the historic site should be heavily reconsidered. "What does it take to declare anything east of 1-35 historic?" says Houston. "If this doesn't, I don't know what else can."

HACA adamantly denies the accusation that it's not committed to paying tribute to the site's cultural significance. Six buildings are reserved for historic zoning under their plan, and the authority hopes to coordinate with the African American Cultural Heritage District for a design contest to best commemorate Emancipation Park. The complex would serve more East Austinites with 200 units instead of 124. And HACA will offer 25 units for homeownership at an affordable rate amid skyrocketing home prices in the area; public housing and Sec­tion 8 residents will be first in line for the new homes. And while residents will face temporary displacement, HACA assures current tenants will be protected and prioritized when relocating into the new buildings, and that rent will not increase.

Compromise on the Horizon?

A series of meetings with various stakeholders, including architects and engineers, is in the works. Recommendations will head to the Historic Landmark Commission and then to the Planning Commission. By June 9, the issue will land back at Council for a final decision.

Routing historic zoning through City Council (as opposed to the Historic Land­mark or Zoning commissions) is very rare, says Jerry Rusthoven of the city's Planning and Zoning Department. In fact, Rusthoven can't recall a similar move in the past five years (and maybe only a couple in the past 20). The Council vote means that neither of the commissions necessarily has the power to stop the zoning; however, without their support, Council will need a supermajority of nine votes to designate the complex as historic.

While it's naive to think heated emotions and racial tension will completely subside, it seems both sides genuinely want compromise in talks moving forward. "I'm optimistic that we can find common ground," says Blanco. "We want to be very sensitive to the points and perspectives of all stakeholders. We've put the project on hold and want to continue to have a very thoughtful process." Houston considers the resolution a "fresh start" after a contentious face-to-face with HACA. "If we can sit down and talk about what possibilities there are and have a vision that preserves the complex and gives them what they want, it'll be a win-win scenario. And I'm ready to have that new conversation."

Living at Rosewood day to day, Perkins says she wishes those who oppose the redevelopment could spend a few weeks in her shoes. "I would tell them to come live here for a month, and see what it's like, see if they can take the heat in the summertime and only one heater in the living room come winter. I'd like to see how they feel about it then."

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Rosewood Courts, Historic Preservation, Fred McGhee, Ora Houston, City Council, HACA

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