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HLC disregards advice of staff, says 1936 houses historic

Monday, August 11, 2003 by

But Council has the final word

Woe unto the developer who tries to oppose well-prepared university professors before the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC).

Developer Larry Manley was planning to move or tear down four rental houses on two lots at the northeast corner of Washington Square and West 31st Street. The four houses are small cottages built by former University of Texas Athletic Director Theo Bellmont.

Alarmed university neighbors, who wanted to protect their quiet tree-lined avenue, came to last week’s commission meeting armed with a full-scale PowerPoint presentation and 9-minute video by a UT architecture professor. By the time the neighbors were through, Manley didn’t have a chance.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky agreed that the houses met a number of historic landmark criteria, but he declined to recommend historic zoning on the property. Sadowsky said the landmarks did not appear to qualify for individual landmark designation, nor did they have substantial identification with a significant historical figure or event.

“Staff’s research and evaluation of these properties indicates that while these houses may contribute to a potential Washington Square historic district, they do not appear to qualify for individual landmark designation,” Sadowsky said.

Law Professor Mark Perlmutter made the presentation on behalf of the Washington Square neighborhood, calling his PowerPoint presentation “the legacy of the historic Bellmont cottages.” Neighbors insisted the cottages met eight historic landmark criteria and are all that is left of what was once “Bachelor’s Row” in Depression-era Austin.

The four cottages, less than 800 square feet apiece, were built in 1936. The frame homes served as rental income for Bellmont and were frequently occupied by employees of the Texas Highway Commission or married university students, according to Sadowsky’s research. Neighbors considered the stonework around the cottages, added by Bellmont, to be the cottages’ finest feature.

Ann Cogdell, who owns the Bellmont-Cogdell House where Bellmont actually lived until his death in 1967, sent a letter urging the commission to preserve the four cottages.

“The demolition of these historic cottages would be a loss to our neighborhood,” Cogdell wrote in her letter to city staff. “We would like to see the cottages either restored or incorporated into an architectural design that would retain and make use of all that’s unique and good, and be executed in a way that honors the property and honors the wonderful Heritage Neighborhood in which we live.”

Manley said nothing distinguished the individual cottages as being historic. Bellmont never lived in any of the small bungalows, nor was the design unique for the time. And the homes are now surrounded by a number of multi-family developments. Manley would like to place seven units, with up to three bedrooms apiece, on the property.

He presented a structural and mechanical review of the properties indicating that all four buildings have decay problems, causing extensive water damage. Some of the houses have mold damage. Others need beams replaced.

Asked by Commissioner Patti Hall for her opinion on the case, architect and Commissioner Laurie Limbacher said the houses on their own did not stand as individually unique, but the “compound” nature of the houses made a strong case for preservation. Commissioner Julie Hooper described the homes as representing a “folk Victorian” style and said she was swayed by the story of Bachelor’s Row, told by the neighbors.

Hooper made the motion for historic preservation. Commissioner Teresa Rabago seconded the motion. Commissioner David West was the only one to vote against it, saying that it was another case of the Historic Landmark Commission being drawn into what was essentially a neighborhood’s effort to stop new development.

“Once again, we’re being drawn into what is a neighborhood planning issue,” West said. “I think historic zoning is inappropriate for this property.”

Hooper said she understood West’s argument, but that she had been so swayed by the neighborhood’s presentation that it had actually changed her mind. West’s own motion to deny historic designation failed for lack of a second.

The Historic Landmark Commission’s recommendation will be forwarded to the Planning Commission for review. Consultant Sarah Crocker, who represented Manley in the case, said the commission’s ruling did not surprise her.

“It’s unfortunate that the threshold for initiating historic designation on properties has fallen so low,” Crocker said. “It’s really sad.”

Extensive Mabel Davis Park Cleanup could take two years

The total cost of the remediation and cleanup project for Mabel Davis Park in Southeast Austin is estimated at between $7 and $12 million. Area residents could regain the use of the park in about two years, according to Joe Lesniak of the Watershed Protection and Development Review Department. The city is working on cleanup and remediation of contamination related to the site’s use as a landfill in the 1950’s. The park was closed in June 2000 after a new round of environmental testing found higher than acceptable levels of pesticides in the soil.

The site has already undergone one cleanup effort—in 1979, before the implementation of state standards for many substances now judged to be harmful. “Many of these pesticides were deemed legal at the time,” said Lesniak during an Environmental Board briefing last week. “They were agricultural pesticides.” While the 1979 cleanup complied with existing standards at the time, Lesniak said, that standard was “about a hundred times higher than today’s cleanup standards.”

Pesticides weren’t the only problem at the site. Because the park lies on top of a former landfill, other waste products, including lead from car batteries, have been discovered. The city hired a company to begin work at the park in April 2001. “We knew this was going to be a very expensive investigation and a very expensive cleanup,” Lesniak said. “We decided at the time that we don’t ever want to have to come back to this park. We knew that this was likely to be a multi-million dollar project. We didn’t want to come back when we found something else.” The city completed its investigation of the site in November 2002 and delivered its report to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which returned its comments in April of this year.

Along with remediation of the topsoil, the city will install a clay cap over the former landfill to keep water out and debris in. “We want to reduce or eliminate the leachate that’s coming out of that landfill,” said Lesniak. “This is one of the most complicated and expensive parts of the project.” Digging up all of the refuse at the landfill site would be cost-prohibitive, so the city chose to install the layer of clay over the landfill instead. “You eliminate the exposure . . . you basically build a soil cap over the top of the existing contamination and leave it there,” Lesniak said. The clay cap, between 12 and 18 inches thick, will be covered by a new layer of topsoil about 20 inches deep.

The site plan for the remodeling of the park may require approval from the Planning Commission or the Zoning and Platting Commission. “We don’t expect to have to come back to the Environmental Board,” said Lesniak. One possible exception would be for a variance to cut-and-fill regulations. The project could go out for bids in November, with construction starting in the spring of 2003. “Construction time is 18 to 24 months,” Lesniak said. “We hope to be able to reopen the park in 2005.”

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserve

Busy night at Board of Adjustment . . . Members of the city’s Sign Review Board and Board of Adjustment (BOA) appear to have enough on their agenda to keep them working past 10pm tonight, especially if the signs and requested variances attract a lot of neighborhood comment. Up first is the Convention Center’s request for a variance on its sign, which is already in place. Board members were none too pleased when they heard the request last month and postponed consideration of the matter until tonight. Six schools in the Austin ISD are seeking variances from sign regulations concerning height, maximum sign area and the number of signs allowed. The board is also scheduled to hear a request for a reduction in the parking requirement for a business at 2201 Kinney Road in South Austin from 57 to 23 parking spaces. Attorney Jeffrey Howard is challenging an interpretation of regulations by the director of the Neighborhood Planning & Zoning Department. He is asking the board to rule on land use at 2307 Rio Grande . . . MBE/WBE to meet briefly . . . The advisory board has only one item on its agenda. The group will discuss and consider action on city funding of a bonding and technical services contract for FY 04. The Council subcommittee on MBE/WBE matters is scheduled to meet at 6pm Tuesday . . . Traffic flow change . . . Starting Saturday, traffic flow on Colorado Street, between 4th Street and Cesar Chavez, will revert from one-way northbound to one-way southbound. The northbound configuration currently in place was a temporary solution to traffic problems resulting from the early stages of the new City Hall construction. In addition, traffic signals will control the intersections of Colorado and Third Street and Colorado and Second Street; Colorado and Fourth Street will be a three-way stop; and all traffic on Colorado will stop at a stop sign before turning left onto Cesar Chavez. Because of high pedestrian activity, westbound traffic on Second Street will not be allowed to turn left onto Colorado while the light is red. All parking spaces on Colorado will remain usable, according to information from the Downtown Austin Alliance.

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