Growing younger gracefully? Progress and preservation in Rainey Street National Register Historic District
Riemer, Allison Elizabeth
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The city of Austin is changing rapidly, and that change is most evident in the neighborhoods near downtown. Rainey Street was once a working-class residential neighborhood largely comprised of simple wooden cottages. But, it has quickly turned into an extension of downtown with nearly fifteen bars and restaurants on two short blocks, flanked by a new high-rise hotel, and several high-rise market rate apartment buildings in place or under construction. Many of the single-family homes have been rehabilitated as bars, with new fenestration, but much of the form and structure of the original homes remains. The two blocks of Rainey Street where the new bars lie has been a National Register Historic District since 1985, but if contributing buildings continue to be removed or radically altered, it may no longer qualify as a NRHD. Through an examination of the current state of contributing buildings, and interviews with business owners, architects, and other actors who have effected change in the District, the consequences for Austin’s built heritage are examined. It is hard for a district to grow “gracefully,” especially at a rapid pace, with polices that put few restrictions on height, and a disconnect between historic preservation planners and other city planning staff. Rainey Street is a successful nightlife corridor, and it is also atypical historic preservation in practice. Many of the business owners like the look of the old buildings, and have retained components, or have built new or mostly new buildings that retain the form and structure of the original neighborhood. In several cases, business owners retained historic buildings and built structures compatible with the existing streetscape because they did not want to further delay development any longer and chose to comply with historic preservation staff and the Landmarks Commission. Local historic districts designations are the best tool for retaining historic districts because they provide design guidelines. However, Rainey Street National Register Historic District may not be eligible as a local historic district in its current state. Historic preservation is largely driven by the actions of dedicated individuals, especially when there are limited incentives, and conversely, limited hindrances.