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Building for Historic designatio n

Monday, September 23, 2002 by

Museum's board says they did not agree to keep historic building

Last week, the Planning Commission chided representatives of the Mexic-Arte Museum for trying to stop historic designation of the Raymond House, the second oldest building on Congress Avenue.

The Historic Landmark Commission in June recommended that the City Council grant historic zoning for the current walls of the museum, up to the parapet. That would allow Mexic-Arte to gut the building’s interior to make way for renovation. The recommendation would also allow the museum to add floors to the building, with a setback of only 40 feet. (See In Fact Daily, June 25, 2002; September 4, 2001.)

In 1999, the city gave Mexic-Arte $740,000 to buy the Raymond House from Congress Partners Limited. The building, described as unremarkable in architecture but significant in its history, was built in 1869 as headquarters for the US Army in Texas.

Historic zoning, according to city documents, was part of the city’s agreement with Mexic-Arte. Mexic-Arte officials, however, argued that historic zoning was never part of the final agreement and that the building was structurally unsound. Museum officials want to clear the second and three floors of the building and double its space for additional exhibits. Everyone agrees that little work has been done on the building since the 1930s.

City staff came up with a compromise. Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin and Urban Design Officer Jana McCann offered an alternative recommendation that would allow an additional four stories while preserving the original structure. Mexic-Arte opposed the alternative, remaining at odds with city’s preservationists who see the structure as significant and a move to provide funding that might eventually demolish a historic building as “a dangerous precedent.”

“The building does not become less historic because Mexic-Arte needs more space,” said architect and historic preservation expert Wayne Bell. “It’s not any less historic because it no longer meets their space requirements. I plead with you to not look at the needs of the Mexic-Arte as much as to look at the historic significance of this building and the scale of Congress Avenue.”

Frank Rodriguez, chairman of the board of Mexic-Arte, argued that the Historic Landmark Commission rejected historic zoning in 1986, which drew a sharp comment from Chair Betty Baker. Baker was a staff member of the HLC at the time and said the circumstances in 1986 were entirely different and did not involve the city giving a significant sum of money to the museum on the condition the building be preserved.

Others who spoke on behalf of the museum explained that only 15 percent of the building fabric was even from the original building and that the building structure was unsound. A lawyer who now advises Mexic-Arte said the city agreement never mentions historic preservation. He said the term “rehabilitation” in the contract simply referred to bringing the building up to code.

The HLC approved historic zoning by a 6-1 vote, and the Planning Commission passed the motion by a similar margin. Only Vice Chair Joseph Martinez opposed the alternative historic zoning recommendation on the building. Baker, in her speech to Mexic-Arte officials, said “rehabilitation” should not be equated with “demolition.”

“I wish we didn’t have to do this because everybody should win on this,” Baker said. “Mexic-Arte, you were given a tremendous opportunity . . . There’s not a non-profit in this city that wouldn’t accept a building on Congress Avenue. I can’t imagine, on this commission, who wouldn’t want to preserve this building.”

Even Diana Castañeda, a likely advocate for Mexic-Arte, told museum officials she would support historic zoning, even though the building was one once used “to decimate your history and my history.”

“We need to preserve it so we can continue to learn from all the facets that make Austin unique,” Castañeda said. “If you need another building, then maybe that’s what you ought to do. As long as you’re there (in that building), you need to preserve the history of both cultures.”

If the City Council approves historic zoning for the building, Mexic-Arte will have to take all renovations and additions to the HLC. The alternative recommendation, however, gives the museum some flexibility on expanding the structure, as long as it has proper setbacks.

Neighborhood eager to see enforcement of parking on grass ordinance

Austin City Council Member Betty Dunkerley took a group of city representatives to meet with the North Austin Civic Association (NACA) last Thursday at the group’s monthly meeting. NACA had asked Dunkerley to speak about code enforcement, but she admitted, “Sometimes I don’t know who to call when I have a question.” So she brought representatives from the Police Department, Office of Neighborhood Services, Health and Human Services Department, Solid Waste Services, Neighborhood Planning and Zoning and the Watershed Protection & Development Review Department to respond to NACA’s questions.

Cora Wright, director of the Office of Neighborhood Services, who moderated the meeting, told the group that when the city launched the department they queried citizens about their biggest neighborhood concerns. Citizens told the city they were primarily worried about public safety and code enforcement, she said.

NACA was one of the neighborhood groups most strongly in favor of the ordinance sponsored by Council Member Danny Thomas to prevent parking on residential lawns. Most of the questions at the meeting addressed that same subject. In response to their queries, Assistant Police Chief James Fealy told the association his department would begin enforcement in one to two weeks.

The ordinance calls for the Austin Police Chief to set the rules for enforcement. A rough draft of the enforcement policy is being reviewed and will soon be sent back to the chief. He also told NACA the department would inform Austin residents of the effective date and when to expect enforcement through an educational campaign, warnings and finally, by writing tickets. Many people present expressed frustration about the ordinance being complaint driven and vehicle specific, rather than property specific.

Some of the people present said they would like to volunteer to write warnings and tickets—similar to those who write tickets for abandoned vehicles—after Fealy told NACA there might be issues that could prevent police officers from issuing warnings or tickets as quickly as residents might like. He said the police, like everyone else, need to prioritize their work.

One group that currently uses volunteers is the city’s Sign Rangers. Sign Rangers remove signs illegally placed in the public right-of-way. Matt Christianson, city code inspector, told NACA that by end of this year the city expects to remove 22,000 bandit signs. Employees in nine city departments are trained to pick up the signs, but Christianson added that they aren’t really in the business of picking up signs. Volunteers go through 12 hours of training and are taught how to recognize the public right-of-way and how to not be confrontational with the public when removing the signs.

Other residents said they were interested in becoming volunteer housing and code inspectors. Wright said she would research that, adding the city doesn’t want to put anyone in jeopardy.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Who was that candidate? . . . Last Tuesday, September 17, In Fact Daily observed a man at the corner of 8th and Lavaca, holding a sign which read: HONK IF YOU LOVE THE CONSTITUTION, COMPLETED SEPTEMBER 17, 1787. It turns out the sign-bearer was the third candidate in the heated race for Texas Attorney General. Jon Roland, the Libertarian candidate in the race, doesn’t even rate a blip on most pollsters’ radar screens. But conventional wisdom would say he may take a few votes from Republican Gregg Abbott, who is running neck-and-neck with Democrat Kirk Watson. As for Roland, he reports that, “The number of people who honk will vary from about one out of ten to about one out of twenty, depending on traffic conditions and time of day.” Roland promises to return to the streets on December 15, Bill of Rights Day . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Arts Commission, which has recently become more controversial than ever, meets at 6:30pm at the Parks and Recreation Department Board Room. The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm at One Texas Center . . . Council meetings this week . . . The City Council returns to a full meeting schedule this week, beginning at 10am Tuesday with the Audit and Finance Committee. The Committee will hear about the City Auditor’s work plan and discuss the cultural arts funding process. Recommendations from the Auditor’s Office should be interesting. The Council will hold a work session on Wednesday and regular Council meeting at the LCRA on Thursday. . . . Sewer repairs . . . Member’s of the city’s Water & Wastewater Utility will talk to the Save Barton Creek Association tonight about the Clean Water Program (ACWP), a city-wide sewer repair project that is projected to take about five years to complete. The meeting begins at 7pm at the Filling Station on Barton Springs Road.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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