Following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville over the weekend, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is calling for the renaming of Robert E. Lee Road in South Austin and Jeff Davis Avenue in North Austin.
Over the weekend, someone spray-painted over street signs for Robert E. Lee Road. The city says it will cost $700 to replace the signs.
The violence in Charlottesville erupted over the city’s plans to remove a statue of Lee, the top general of the Confederate Army during the Civil War, from a park. Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederate States.
"I remember ... teachers in my grade school telling me lies about Robert E. Lee's supposed heroism and the truth is that Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders caused the deaths of more than a million Americans because they wanted to keep black people enslaved,” said Casar, who spent four years living in Charlottesville as a student at the University of Virginia. “We cannot keep propagating that lie on our street signs.”
More than 5,000 people have signed a Change.org petition supporting the renaming of Robert E. Lee Road.
But local petitions, unless signed by people who own property on the street set to be renamed, have little bearing on whether an Austin street will get a new name. I wrote a story about how a street name gets changed for the Austin Monitor back in 2015. First, the city has limits on the reasons a street can be renamed:
[T]here are eight valid reasons under which someone can apply to have a street name changed, all but two involving an explicit issue with the current name (that is, correcting a misspelling and doing away with duplicate names). These include honoring a person, making sure the street name is consistent with its compass direction and “enhanc(ing) a neighborhood through the association of a street name with its location, area characteristics, and history.”
Only someone who owns property abutting or on the street or a person representing a government agency, including council members, can apply for a new street name. Then the city has to reach out to all the property owners on the street.
Once someone brings an application forward, the city mails support forms to all the property owners on that street. If less than 50 percent of the property owners agree with the change, the application goes no further. If 100 percent of the owners agree with the name change, seven city departments and agencies will have to approve it before it goes to Council members for a final vote.
If the city receives less than 100 percent support from local property owners, the renaming goes to a public hearing. And then it goes to extensive city review:
Following a public hearing, seven city departments and agencies review the new name. These include the Austin Fire Department, the Austin Police Department and Emergency Medical Services, all of whom consider how the street name change might affect their ability to respond during emergencies. Other agencies include the U.S. Postal Service and the city’s traffic engineer.
If these city departments sign off, the proposed new name heads to City Council for a final vote. If approved, new signage has to be paid for.
Then, the Transportation Department starts calculating the cost of changing the street signs – a sum that, if the application was brought by an individual and not a city department nor Council member, must be paid by that individual. A regular street sign, assuming that the post and screws are already up, costs roughly $150 (between $28.78 and $49.80 for the actual sign, additional costs for installation).
If the street is renamed after another person, according to city staff, the city would be required to collect a signature from a family member.
"We would need to track down some relative that would agree," said Cari Buetow, who formerly oversaw the street-renaming process in the city's Transportation Department. "According to our process, we may be able to have a conversation with our attorney and work something else out."
Casar said the City Council could reconsider the street renaming as soon as Tuesday, and that he would bring forward Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as possible names to replace Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis. Council Member Ann Kitchen, whose district houses Robert E. Lee Road, said she will support a renaming.