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Historic task force likely to limit criteria

Monday, November 17, 2003 by

Some recommendations would limit neighborhoods' options

A task force continues to work on a rewrite of the historic preservation ordinance, tightening criteria as a way to keep the focus on historic integrity and off the use of the preservation ordinance as a neighborhood land-use tool.

The recently appointed Historic Preservation Task Force includes a former city attorney, four sitting commissioners from the Planning Commission and the Zoning and Platting Commission and two former members of the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC). Members frequently have firsthand knowledge of he ordinance’s original intent.

Issues such as the age appropriateness of historic landmarks have waylaid the task force occasionally with extended discussion, but the group has remained fairly focused at its biweekly meetings. Chair Betty Baker has walked the group through an ordinance written by an HLC subcommittee. The task force’s recommendations are due to the City Council in March, giving them plenty of time to tackle the issues.

While the group has up to this point reviewed landmark criteria and historic districts, Baker has delayed discussion on what will likely be the most controversial topic for the group: financial incentives for the historic preservation of buildings in Austin.

Last week the task force reviewed criteria for historic landmarks and members like former HLC member Jim Christianson pointed out that criteria should be tightened to make sure the focus remained historic preservation.

Christianson said the earliest commission was willing to make hard decisions that often made neighborhoods angry. They didn’t cave in to pressure from neighborhood groups. “We were willing to take brunt of criticism and say ‘no,’” Christianson told members of the task force. “These days, it seems like a neighborhood can go down to the commission, tell (a) sob story and, bam, it’s zoned history.”

Building should be important to whole community

One way the task force proposed eliminating that possibility was to delete a criterion under the revised ordinance that allowed designating a building historic because the property “is a demonstrated source of community sentiment or public pride, evidenced by written support from a neighborhood association or other interested party.” Members found that wording too vague to support.

Christianson noted that the original historic landmark ordinance always intended to recognize structures that were of significant value to the entire city, not just a house that neighbors decided was historic.

Christianson spoke of the many times he found himself talking back to a televised meeting of the HLC when neighborhoods came forward to argue the historical significance of the house without ever talking about its history. While Christianson sympathized with frustrated neighborhoods, he also saw that neighborhoods were using the historic preservation ordinance as a land-use tool because of their limited options.

The Historic Preservation Task Force has the job of making recommendations to the City Council after a review of the ordinance. Those recommendations, would not be binding and, to date, they have followed the HLC subcommittee’s recommendations in most cases. But if the current recommendations are approved, historic designation will be significantly altered.

Age, structural integrity, architectural significance paramount

Instead of picking and choosing from among 13 criteria, historic landmarks would have to meet two criteria without fail: the building would have to be at least 50 years old—unless it has exceptional importance—and it must retain sufficient integrity of materials and design to convey its historical appearance.

Beyond that are categories of criteria, most with additional options, labeled “A” to “F.” A property would automatically qualify for city historic designation if it met the two requirements, plus met the criterion of recognized historical/architectural significance. That could include a listing in the National Register of Historic Places or designation as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, State Archeological Landmark or National Historic Landmark.

If the building met the two required criteria but was not recognized, it could qualify in a number of categories outlined by the proposed ordinance. The building would have to meet two of the criteria under the categories of B through E.

Under the B category, the property would possess architectural or artistic significance. That could include the embodiment of distinguishing or recognized architectural styles or methods of construction, representing a technological innovation in design or construction, containing features representing ethnic or folk architecture or construction, representing the work of a noted architect, builder or artisan, representing a rare example of an architectural style or bearing a physical or contextual relationship to other architecturally significant structures or areas of the city.

Under the C category, the property would be significantly associated with persons, groups, institutions, businesses or events of historical significance, which contributed to the social, cultural, economic, development or political history of the city, state or nation, or is representative of a culture or group of people in a historical era through its architecture, method of construction or use. The task force inserted the word “significantly” to emphasize that only an exceptional property would be considered of the caliber to be designated historic.

Under the D category, the property would possess archeological significance in that it has or is expected to yield significant data concerning the human history or prehistory of the region. The task force accepted this, as written, by the subcommittee.

And under the E category, the property would possess value because of its association with Austin. That would mean the building would be considered significantly representing the cultural, economic, social, ethnic, artistic or historical heritage of the city or has a location, physical characteristics or other unique features which greatly contribute to the character or image of the city, a neighborhood or a population group.

An F category was also included to recognize natural features such as the Treaty Oak or Mount Bonnell. The criterion noted that the property could be recognized if it provided a significant natural or designated landscape or landscape feature with artistic, aesthetic, cultural or historic value to the city.

The requirement of base qualifications, plus additional criteria, raises the bar for historic designation. In the past, the HLC has been able to initiate a historic landmark designation, even if the building met only one of the 13 criteria.

School, cafe given time to find parking solution

The proprietors of the Parkside Community School and Casa de Luz restaurant on Toomey Road will have a few more months to find adequate parking for the two establishments. The Board of Adjustment recently postponed their request for a parking variance to allow the school and restaurant until early next year to resolve the situation.

Under current city code, the business and school should have a total of 68 parking spaces. They currently provide two parking spaces marked for handicapped use. That drastic difference brought out neighbors and neighborhood association representatives to oppose the variance. “We all comply, or try very hard to comply, with the city ordinances,” said nearby business landowner Susan Toomey Frost. “If you grant this variance . . . to do so would give this tract a special privilege that is inconsistent with the rest of us.” She argued that changes at the school in the 13 years it had been in existence, including the addition of the Casa de Luz restaurant, had eliminated some of the available parking reserved for the facilities. “If it is a hardship, it is one that has been self-inflicted,” she said.

Other residents complained that school staff and parents park along the street or in lots reserved for other uses. “We’ve spent hours with them urging conformance with the code. This is about code compliance,” said Bobby Rigney of the Zilker Neighborhood Association. “I’ve seen cases where the board would not allow a variance because the hardship was not unique to the property. For the variance requested today, it would be simply dishonest to say we’ve heard a legally satisfying hardship.”

School representatives told board members they were willing to make changes to the restaurant to reduce the amount of parking necessary and that they were taking steps to find additional parking. Those steps include negotiating with Capital Metro over the use of a park-and-ride lot across the street. They also presented a petition with over 800 signatures in support of the parking variance. While the school coexisted peacefully with neighbors for the past 13 years, they said, a dispute last year over a proposal to relocate The Cedar Door down the street had led to the current antagonism over the parking situation.

Toomey Frost owns the land first slated to become the new home of the popular bar, but eventually The Cedar Door gave up the idea of moving to South Austin and found a downtown location.

Board Chair Herman Thun, while praising the school as a positive use, was reluctant to try to mediate that internal neighborhood battle. “We get put into a bind by entities who are fighting one another, and we don’t enjoy that at all,” he said. “We’re not here to be peacemakers between factions.” And while Board Member Frank Fuentes agreed with that philosophy, he urged the rest of the board to give the school more time. “This board should not find solutions . . . but sometimes we do,” he noted. “I can’t help but feeling that for this case, this issue, there’s got to be a solution.” Fuentes also made a personal appeal to Jeff Jack, the former president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association who spoke against the parking variance, to work with the school to devise a way to allow it to continue operating.

Board Member Betty Edgemond moved to deny the variance. But the board voted 5-0 to postpone the request until early next year. That will allow more time to negotiate for additional parking spaces. In addition, there could be changes made to city code that would reduce the number of spaces required. Earlier this month, the Council approved on first reading changes to the city’s parking rules designed to make the development process easier for small businesses. Those code amendments are posted for further consideration by the Council this week. If they pass on second and third reading, the requirement for the parking variance would not be eliminated, but it would reduce the modifications the school and restaurant need to make to come into compliance or the number of off-site spaces the school needs to place under contract.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

South Austin Culture Club yearly gathering . . . The group that bought you the Billion Bubba March is having its annual meeting at 11:30am Wednesday at the Austin Lyric Opera, Barton Springs and Bouldin. Their publicity says they will be presenting “the grand opening of Town Lake Park (even though the city says it won’t be open for another 2 years!).” This is supposed to put the City Council on notice that those bubbas are tired of waiting, have not read any financial news and want work to begin on the park now. It’s also a warning to those more interested in downtown revitalization to stay on their own side of the river and stop making pronouncements about having enough parkland already. Cactus Pryor will lead the merriment. Lunch is $12. Call 619-7350 with questions or to reserve a spot . . . Today’s Capital Metro agenda . . . Capital Metro’s board of directors will consider approving the City of Austin’s list of mobility projects, which comes out of the ¼ cent the transit agency gives to the city. Other business includes authorizing CEO Fred Gilliam to execute a contract for installation of gates on the Giddings/Llano rail line for about $516,000. Two union members are scheduled to address the board, with Robert Daniels declaring that he will talk about “covering up whistle blowing and falsifying legal documents.” The board will also consider authorize Gilliam to enter into interlocal agreements with the villages of Point Venture and Volente for the Build Greater Austin Suburban Communities Program. The meeting begins at 4pm, following a 3:30pm meeting of the finance/planning committee . . . CAMPO meeting tonight . . . The Transportation Policy Board, previously known as the Policy Action Council, will meet at 6pm in the Auditorium of the Joe C. Thompson Conference Center. At 6:15pm, the board will hold a public hearing on requests from the City of Austin and TxDOT to amend the FY 2004 – FY 2008 TIP. The board is scheduled to consider adopting the amendments and selecting STP MM projects at its December 8 meeting . . . HLC meeting tonight also . . . The Historic Landmark Commission will meet at 7pm this evening. City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the commission would meet tonight instead of next Monday because of the Thanksgiving holiday next week . . . So many meetings, so little time . . . The Planning Commission’s committee on codes and ordinances is scheduled to meet at 5pm today in Room 240 at One Texas Center. The Electric Utility Commission will also meet at 6pm at Austin Energy . . . More fun, perhaps. . . Brown Santa will be gearing up to collect toys and money to buy Christmas gifts for needy kids. The kick-off party for the project is tonight from 6:30-8pm at the Brown Santa Warehouse, 6110 Trade Center Drive Suite 100. That’s off Montopolis between Hwy 71 E and Burleson Road. For more information, contact Tracy Hill-Dorty or Tip Birdwell at 512-24SANTA (512-247-2682). For information about Brown Santa, hours of operation, volunteer and donations needed or directions to the Brown Santa Warehouse go to

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