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But questions remain on economic implications of designation

Monday, October 28, 2002 by

After a week’s delay, the Zoning and Platting Commission unanimously approved historic zoning for the 1938 Tudor style mansion known as the Gatewood House. Chair Betty Baker asked the commission to postpone consideration of the historic designation last week in order to make a point about the long-term economic implications for the city when such high-priced structures gain historic tax exemptions. The house, which was designed by Austin architect Edwin Kreissle, was appraised at $1.8 million.

Giving the house a tax exemption means the city will lose approximately $26,000 in tax revenues. At Baker’s urging, the commission also agreed to send a letter to City Council to ask for creation of a task force on historic exemptions for residential properties.

The purpose of the task force – made up of representatives of the Planning Commission, Historic Landmark Commission and Zoning and Platting Commission – would be to review the tax implications of historic zoning. Tuesday night, Baker insisted she had nothing against the house – didn’t even question its significance – but had economic concerns.

According to city statistics, almost 3,000 structures in Austin date prior to 1900, Baker told her colleagues. A total of 14,542 structures in the city were built before 1940. While 50 years is a criterion for state and federal historic landmark designation, the state and federal governments do not tie historic designation to tax abatements, Baker said.

“You did an awfully good job of rallying the troops,” Baker told Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Stocklin. She explained that her actions were not personal. “It was a matter of economics. Historic zoning is a benefit to the public and a benefit to the city of Austin. But hopefully all of us are mindful of the reality of the economics of the situation.”

The Gatewood House meets a strict list of historical criteria, including a biographical sketch of significant owners, Stocklin said. Age is only one of a number of criteria.

“There’s a misconception in the community that every house that is 50 years old is historic, and that’s not true,” Stocklin said. “That’s why we have the landmark criteria…. Lots of people have old houses that don’t qualify as historic.”

Members of the Historic Landmark Commission were also on hand to support the historic designation of the Gatewood House. Commissioner Dan Leary, an architect, stressed the significance of the Norman Tudor design and the beauty of the detail. Vice Chair Jim Fowler said he appreciated the slippery slope argument that Baker presented, but he stressed the house met stringent criteria for historic designation.

“We do watch the money, and we are rigid in our considerations,” Fowler said. “Eventually, essentially, you have to trust us.”

Commissioner Keith Jackson apologized to the speakers, saying the Gatewood House case was caught up in a larger issue. The overall concern, Jackson said, is how the city is reaching historic designations, especially on properties east of Interstate 35. Yes, the city wants to protect its heritage, but there are other factors to consider.

“When you are involved in the economic times we’ve recently found ourselves in, we do owe it to the community to look at whether we are being rigorous enough in how these designations are obtained,” Jackson told the audience.

Baker added that historic designations for commercial properties such as the Littlefield building had added significant value to the tax roll. That can’t be said for residential properties, Baker said. It’s a point for discussion. Now it will be up to City Council to make the decision on whether a task force should be created.

Baker has cast herself in a role that is ironic for her. She is in director of the Heritage Marketing Department for the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau. She has worked tirelessly in the past to make sure that houses such as the Sheeks-Robertson House at 6th and West Lynn were preserved. Yesterday, her department received the Chair Emeritus Award from the Downtown Austin Alliance for its success in drawing tourists to downtown.

Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman, who appointed Baker to the commission, said she believes it is time to take a lot at the economic implications of historic zoning. “There are a lot of properties that fit under that (historic) designation. And in a town where we have so much state and church property that are tax exempt, it may be an issue.” Goodman said she would consider adding to the charge of the task force that is currently looking at historic zoning and gentrification in East Austin. If that were done, she said, she would also want to expand the membership of the committee since the original group was appointed to look only at problems facing the East side.

Divided Congress has many higher priorities

The Lower Colorado River Authority will have to take its chances on a lame duck Congress as the agency waits to see whether a further flood plain management study is funded.

Missy Mandell, LCRA’s executive advisor for federal affairs, described ongoing funding for the US Army Corps of Engineers’ flood plain study for Central and South Texas as a top priority for the agency. Congress, on the other hand, is in the midst of continuing funding resolutions, trying to keep the country going while they hammer out a budget. With control of the Senate hinging on many uncertain elections, it’s unlikely any significant work will be completed before early next year, Mandell told the agency’s board last week.

“Lame duck sessions are not the most productive time to deal with larger policy issues,” Mandell said. “Members are just re-elected. Some have lost their bid for re-elections. Others have not sought re-election . . . It’s going to be an interesting time . . . Both parties are getting organized to get ready for the next session.”

The Corps of Engineers is working on a second year of its flood plain management study. As it stands now, the Corps will work at the same level of funding next year as it did last year—about $500,000, Mandell said. That $500,000 covered an initial flood plain study and an updated flood plain map of Wharton County. But it’s far short of the $2 million the LCRA hoped to see to further flood plain management efforts in Central Texas.

The LCRA is a member of a four-year-old coalition of 45 cities and counties along the Colorado River formed to address flooding issues, said LCRA spokesman Robert Cullick. While flooding along the Guadalupe River has drawn more attention, the Colorado has had its share of flooding episodes: a ’91 flood that damaged almost 500 Mansfield Dam area homes on Lake Travis; a ’95 flood on Lake LBJ that wiped out several dozen homes in Sandy Harbor; and a ’97 upstream flood that devastated the area around Llano.

The flood that recently devastated the Guadalupe basin could have easily been 50 miles north on the Colorado River basin, Cullick said.

“It could have been ours,” Cullick said. “Just another puff of wind and it would have been in our basin.”

The Corps’ initial flood plain study is 300 miles of river between San Saba and the Gulf of Mexico. The initial flood plain map of the area—with computer modeling of a 100-year flood and a 500-year flood—has showed the scope of damage that would occur under such flood conditions.

In a 100-year flood, Lake Travis would rise six feet higher than originally estimated, Cullick said. Earlier estimates on the other Highland Lakes were fairly accurate. A 100-year flood would destroy or damage 15,000 structures. A 500-year flood would damage a total of 29,000 structures in the basin.

“That’s a very important figure,” Cullick said. “We knew there would be damage, but this allows us to move to a dollar figure. It should—and it will—cause people to do things different.”

The new information leaves LCRA with the following options to deal with flooding:

• Do nothing;

• Ask FEMA to raise the watermark on flood plain level designations;

• Stop some of the water before it gets to the Highland Lakes by creating new reservoirs;

• Release more water from Lake Travis;

• Buy out property along the Highland Lakes; or

• A combination of the options.

The $2 million in funding in the upcoming year would be to study the feasibility of the various options. Mandell said the outcome of the November elections, and the resulting balance of power, will dictate the future of funding.

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

Pipeline hearing tonight . . . The City of Austin invites interested citizens to speak up on the proposed hazardous pipeline ordinance at 6:30pm tonight at Langford Elementary School, 2206 Blue Meadow Dr. . . . Also tonight . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm, with routine business on the agenda. Several homes in the Hyde Park and Clarksville neighborhoods are seeking historic designation. The city’s Arts Commission will hold a special called meeting at 6:30 pm to consider an interim cultural contracts funding process for FY 03-04. The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at One Texas Center, Room 325. The Arts Commission will meet at the Parks & Recreation Department Board Room . . . Jockey Club zoning splits commission . . . A zoning change request for land in the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan area will go to the City Council without a recommendation from the Planning Commission. That panel split 4-4 last week over whether to endorse a change from office to multi-family residential. While the city is technically the applicant on the zoning change request as a courtesy to the property owner, the staff recommendation was to deny the zoning change for the lots known as the Jockey Club tract. The Zoning and Platting Commission and neighborhood groups have both previously endorsed the proposal to allow a mixture of homes and apartments. The case was sent to both the ZAP and the Planning Commission because of the timing of the application in relation to the passage of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan and the split of the old Planning Commission . . . Hearing on amending Neighborhood Plans . . . The Planning Commission is holding a hearing at noon on Tuesday to talk about a proposed ordinance that would set forth how Neighborhood Plans will be amended in the future. The meeting will be in the fifth-floor conference room at One Texas Center.

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

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