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Landmark commission hopes new

Thursday, January 18, 2001 by

Ordinance will solve problems

City Council could see proposal in March

A rewrite of the historic landmark ordinance will add more fail-safe measures to both the demolition of potentially historic buildings and the hearing process for disputed landmark cases.

The Historic Landmark Commission hears about 20 landmark cases a year. Some of the thornier cases like Vignette, the Cater Joseph House, Tips Warehouse and the Buratti-Moreno Building have generated plenty of discussion at the Historic Landmark Commission. Many of the concerns raised by these cases were built into the streamlined ordinance the HLC approved last week. The revised ordinance will go to the Planning Commission next month and the City Council in March or April.

Vignette, for instance, was a case in which the developer asked the Historic Landmark Commission to pre-approve a demolition permit for a site on which three potentially historic houses stood. That demolition permit was approved the same night with no formal public hearing, which disturbed the commissioners. It was, in essence, a repeat of the Tips Warehouse case, which had forced commissioners to bow to the strong pressures for downtown development by choosing to demolish the historic warehouse.

Under the streamlined ordinance, the City Historic Preservation Office would review all city demolition and relocation permits and perform a preliminary review of a property’s potential to meet historic landmark criteria. The new guidelines are intended to create a consistent process for all permits, and would release permits for buildings with no historic value.

If the City Historic Preservation Office, however, determines that a property has high potential to be considered a historic landmark, the permit would be put on hold and the building's owner notified. An automatic historic landmark criteria hearing would be triggered requiring the same notice to the community as in any landmark case. The idea is to determine the historic value of the structure within three days of the demolition or relocation permit request being filed.

“If there’s a site plan that we evaluate, or if someone wants us to perform a development assessment, then everything falls under this same review process,” Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin said. It’s basically one process for a demolition permit, regardless of whether they have applied or not.

“The uniform process also allows the Historic Landmark Commission to formalize procedures it is already using to some extent, and to sidestep pressure from other arms of the city to have these hearings on projects before you actually get the demolition permit,” Stocklin told commissioners.

“The cases that are the most difficult for us on the Historic Landmark Commission are the cases with owner opposition,” said Commissioner Laurie Limbacher, who was chair of the committee that rewrote the ordinance. “In those cases, we need to be absolutely sure of our decisions.” But commissioners also want to save those historic buildings that do play a part in Austin's history.

The Cater Joseph House was such a case. “It was a difficult issue for us. The applicant had gotten the impression he wouldn't have to deal with the whole question of whether the building was historic or not when he filed his application,” Limbacher said. “The possible historic significance of a building can be a very complicated issue for the building’s owner.”

In April 1999, the case put the City Council between the building’s owner and a neighborhood association. The owner of the historic house, located at 2824 Rio Grande, wanted the building demolished and replaced with apartments because the foundation was beyond repair.

The neighborhood association disagreed and hired its own engineer to review the foundation. By the time the case had reached the City Council, the neighborhood’s engineer had determined that the foundation repair would cost $15,000, whereas the owner’s engineer estimated $150,000.

The Council was left wondering which figure was closer to the truth, Stocklin said. The rewritten ordinance addresses this issue as well. The Historic Landmark Commission would establish a two-step process for historic designations under dispute. Owners would be asked to provide documentation at a disposition hearing to establish the state of the building. The commission may at that point ask the city to contribute $20,000 for an independent evaluation of the building.

Stocklin elucidated the process to commissioners in a two-page flow chart. The process would start with a public hearing to determine eligibility as a historic landmark. The Historic Landmark Commission would then have 45 days to determine eligibility. If the landmark qualified, then a second historic zoning case would be filed and a disposition hearing would be scheduled. That disposition hearing would give the owner another 45 days to come up with information on the state and importance of the structure, as well as possible reuse plans for the building. The commission would be given the option of a 30-day delay.

The Historic Landmark Commission could choose to recommend to the Planning Commission any number of designations, from historic zoning to approval of redevelopment plans. If the case draws serious concern, a demolition delay can be filed.

Several commissioners pointed to the Buratti-Moreno Building, 1001-1003 E. 6th Street, as one case that could be addressed under the new statute. Plans for the building were approved at the Historic Landmark Commission, but had substantially changed by the time they reached City Council. Revised plans gutted the existing historic structure retaining only the building’s façade.(See In Fact Daily, Aug. 17, Aug. 20, 1999) Commissioners debated whether new or amended plans would trigger a return to the Historic Landmark Commission under the ordinance, finally deciding they could only note the conditional approval of plans based on information submitted and encourage a delay so that all preservation options could be explored. Limbacher remarked, “There needs to be a vehicle by which a case can be routed back to the Landmark Commission.”

In the case of Vignette, the software company that plans to build across from the Convention Center, the process used to facilitate the demolition permit was “abnormal” even if it was permitted under the existing ordinance, Limbacher said. “One of the things we were concerned about was that those houses didn't go through the standard public hearing,” she said. “We didn't have the chance to notify the people who had a knowledge or an interest in the houses. We needed to provide a process that allows us to do these kinds of preliminary assessments but still includes the public participation in the process. We needed to build in ways to give these kinds of issues a full hearing and let people feel it's a productive process, even though it can be an aggravation for the owner,” she said.

Environmental Board Okays contract

For Boggy Creek erosion project

Replace all the trees, Board says

The city’s Environmental Board gave its blessing last night to a contract for stabilizing the stream bank and bottom of Boggy Creek’s Tannehill Branch, which flows through Bartholomew Park. The park is near Robert Mueller Airport at E. 51st Street. Board Member Buzz Avery said, “ Tim Jones and I first looked at this erosion problem four years ago and made a proposal that the erosion be dealt with. I’m a little dismayed that it’s taken so long.”

Mike Kelly of the Watershed Protection Department (WPD) told the board that the project was first approved in 1994. Bonds were issued for the project and a design done for erosion control, but with continued erosion the old plans have become obsolete. Kelly said the city’s Parks and Recreation Department had attempted to stop the erosion at some point in the past by installing gabions—wire baskets containing tightly packed rocks. That method did not work, he said, “If the structure is not robust enough, it will be blown apart” by the force of the water. That’s what happened to the gabions.

According to material Kelly provided to the board, “Increased stormwater runoff from upstream urbanization has caused the channel to downcut and widen, despite previous attempts to stabilize the reach. Loss of parkland, trees and aquatic habitat has followed the channel degradation.” Kelly told the board, “The worst case scenario is that the drop structure (gabions) threatens the safety of the dam.”

Kelly said the new erosion control structure would be “a series of limestone boulders, in a cascading pool sequence. It will look more like a Hill Country pool and be closer to nature and more robust than the gabion structure.” He noted that the new structure has been designed to dissipate the energy of rushing stormwater, unlike the gabions. “The whole (structure) is to enhance the natural character, form and function of the stream. We allow the stream to do its thing, without affecting parkland and water quality.”

The proposal from WPD would have 17 Cedar Elms removed during construction since the ever-widening stream threatens most of them anyway. Kelly said the plan called for those trees to be replaced by 15 new ones. The board did not agree to the trade-off and recommended that all trees removed be replaced.

The low bidder, Camp Excavation and Contracting, submitted a bid of nearly $438,000. The contract is scheduled to appear on next week’s City Council agenda.

City must act soon to avoid

Stringent air quality measures

Consultants' report due in two months

Austin should move quickly to address clean air issues before it is forced to take the drastic measures that come with non-compliance, Wade Thomas of the Clean Air Force told the city’s Resource Management Commission last night.

Thomas told commissioners that Austin—which is on the brink of non-attainment—has a small window in which to propose voluntary clean air measures to the Environmental Protection Agency. Before mandatory measures are imposed, the five-county Austin metropolitan area needs to move to suggest a flexible ozone quality plan, Thomas said. Area growth has meant that clean air is no longer a given for Austin.

“Outdoor air quality was generally something we took for granted in Austin,” Thomas said. “We weren’t Dallas. We weren’t Houston. Unfortunately, we’ve become more like them and the real downside of it is that because of the degradation of air quality, we’re looking at the very strong possibility of being declared a non-attainment area.”

The voluntary measures—known to the EPA as an O-3 Flex Plan—would be proposed by local officials who would determine the control measures that best fit the area, Thomas said. Proactive, voluntary measures give the area much more latitude in cleaning up local air quality, he said.

Those measures are likely to be based upon a model being generated by a California consulting firm, whose report is due in about two months. Thomas estimates clean air measures would need to remove 10 to 20 tons of airborne particulates daily to make sure the city reaches compliance. The consulting firm will provide a breakdown of the kind of emissions that need to be addressed and to what extent.

The Houston-Galveston area, Thomas said, is a textbook example of what happens when an area fails to take action early. In Thomas’ opinion, too many early smokestack factories were grandfathered out of clean air compliance in Houston in the early 1970s. The assumption was many of them had reached or would soon reach the end of their useful lives. As time passed, however, owners pushed to keep those older, less efficient factories far past their useful lives to avoid compliance. In the meantime, newer factories were bearing a tougher burden for clean air compliance, Thomas said.

To compound the issue, Houston also failed to be proactive. When it came time to address the smog those factories created, Houston did the bare minimum to get past EPA guidelines, Thomas said. Now ozone levels are so high that the city must taken drastic measures to make a dent in the air pollution, such as prohibiting early-morning construction While this does help meet compliance measures, it also creates health and safety issues for people who work on road crews, Thomas said.

Houston has also faced legal challenges to its stricter measures. A guideline to replace airport ground support equipment was thrown out when airlines sued the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, Thomas said. The petrochemical industry has also filed a challenge.

Austin needs to start early before the problem of air quality gets out of hand, Thomas said. Thomas would like to negotiate better measures for Austin, such as the use of the remote sensing for vehicle emission inspections instead of the more expensive tailpipe or ramping methods. The city is also working with major companies such as Motorola, Samsung, Vignette and Intel to decrease emissions through a Clean Air Partners program. Before any plan is proposed, the commissioners courts of the five-county Austin area and the Austin City Council must all agree to the measures.

©2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

57 Channels and nothing on? . . The Council Committee for Telecommunications Infrastructure set a public hearing to address cable TV customer service concerns, for 3 p.m. February 21, at the Municipal Building, 124 West Eighth St. Mayor Pro-tem Jackie Goodman said she hopes to hear ideas on how to improve customer service. All four companies holding franchise license agreements with the city will be invited: AOL-Time Warner, Grande Communications, Western Integrated Networks and Wide Open West Texas . . . Rumor city . . . Mayor Kirk Watson is in Washington, D.C., but the rumors about his possible departure from City Hall to run for Attorney General—or alternatively to take a post in the new Republican administration—are good for a laugh, at least. Still, he has to be wondering how many months he would need to campaign for a statewide office, if that’s what he really wants.

© 2000 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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