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Neighborhood's plea for historic zoning rejected

Monday, November 3, 2003 by

Council says historic designation should not be used as planning tool

Babies in arms, a number of Washington Square residents waited for several hours Thursday night to testify in favor of historic zoning for four small 1930s homes known as the Bellmont Cottages. But neither the babies nor their parents could sway the Council, which has lately seen a parade of historic zoning cases—a number of which could not even pass muster before the city’s Historic Preservation Officer.

One of those speaking was homeowner Kisla Jimenez, who told the Council that when she and her husband purchased their house, “We naively concluded that no more of the old homes in the neighborhood” would be destroyed. She also questioned the economics of destroying occupied homes to replace them with a three-story apartment complex. “We want our babies to grow up in this unique, old funky neighborhood,” she said.

Former UT Sports Director Theo Bellmont built the four small cottages at 3013 and 3015 Washington Square around 1936 as rental properties, according to information provided by city staff. Owner Larry Paul Manley applied for a demolition permit to remove the houses and build condominiums as allowed under MF-2 zoning. Two of the cottages front on 31st Street, across the street from more multi-family zoned property. Manley told the Council, “We’re trying to design high-end luxury apartment living in the central city as a redevelopment effort.”

When neighbors learned about the demolition permit, they asked the Historic Landmark Commission to deny the permit and begin the historic zoning process—which the commission did. City Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky recommended against the zoning, noting, “The houses are simple, one-story, wood-frame houses with little architectural distinction.” Unlike neighborhood petitioners, Sadowsky expressed the view that the cottages would not contribute to a potential Washington Square Historic district “because they are dissimilar from the other homes on Washington Square in architecture and date of construction.”

Manley filed a valid petition against the zoning change and submitted documentation from a structural and mechanical review showing the need to upgrade plumbing and electrical wiring as well as some structural repairs. He also hired consultant Sarah Crocker to fight the historic designation.

Most of the speakers indicated that they lived in the Washington Square neighborhood, but Mary Ingle told the Council she is a member of the North University Neighborhood Association, a “mirror image” of Washington Square, she said. Ingle said, “Too many houses and cottages are being demolished in our central city family neighborhoods. And let me ask this question—what will be left? I suggest nothing. I hope that all of you don’t have these problems in your own individual neighborhoods. You know, you go to bed one night and the next morning you wake up and the house next door is missing. My mantra, which I keep repeating here, is ‘Neighborhoods are destroyed one house at a time, not in one fell swoop.’ When will preservation of our central city family neighborhoods become a priority in this city?” She asked.

Mayor Will Wynn pounced on Ingle’s comments. “Thank you, Ms. Ingle. I’m sorry, but I can’t help but point out that in 2001, the NUNA neighborhood fought desperately to stop development from happening on the Drag on top of a surface parking lot where we should have a 20-story apartment complex—in my opinion—to take pressure off these neighborhoods. But by these neighborhoods fighting density at every location, including Guadalupe, guess what happens?” The NUNA neighborhood battled for over a year with the developer of a 150-unit complex, which the Council eventually approved on a 4-3 vote. (See In Fact Daily, April 5, 2002. )

When testimony was done, Council Member Brewster McCracken moved to deny the historic zoning and Council Member Danny Thomas seconded his motion. Council Member Daryl Slusher commented, “I’m probably going to vote for that motion because I don’t think these meet the historic test.” But he said the inappropriate use of historic zoning as a planning tool was understandable, since multi-family zoning was scattered around the West campus area, threatening neighborhoods. He agreed with Wynn on the Villas on Guadalupe case, which allowed a four-story apartment complex for students to be built at 29th and Guadalupe. Slusher then asked when the West campus area would go through neighborhood planning.

Wynn responded, “There’s a multi-neighborhood process going on right now to try to direct more attention to the West Campus area.” He urged those who supported the historic zoning to get involved in planning for greater density along the main arteries in the area. Greater density, he said, could improve the quality of life for area residents. “Your heart is very much in the right place,” he concluded, urging them to take up the planning challenge with area merchants and other property owners.

Clean Air Compact measures outlined

Vehicle tail pipe inspections likely in Travis, Williamson and Hays

The task force working on the Clean Air Action Plan for Austin and neighboring counties has established a list of dozens of possible steps to reduce the level of ozone in the atmosphere. Those suggestions are being presented to local government and civic groups over the next month before members of the Early Action Compact are asked to vote on which measures to adopt.

Although Austin is technically within the federal guidelines for ozone levels this year, City of Austin Sustainability Officer Fred Blood told the City Council on Thursday that that was not likely to continue. “Next year . . . there’s a probability we will be back into non-attainment,” he said. “The purpose of the Clean Air Action Plan is to make it so that we stay in attainment and we don’t have to count on good weather to stay in attainment.”

Since most of the ozone in Central Texas is the result of automobile exhaust, the first item on the list of suggestions in the Clean Air Action Plan is the reduction of vehicle emissions. In Dallas and Houston, vehicles are already subject to annual required tailpipe testing as a component of measuring exhaust levels. The task force is recommending a similar program in Travis, Williamson and Hays Counties. “We would be inspecting all the cars between 2 and 24 years old,” said Blood. Newer vehicles generally don’t have problems with emissions levels, while testing cars more than 24 years old is generally not effective because there is little that can be done to reduce emissions on such vehicles. The estimated cost of an emissions test is about $20, which would be in addition to the $12.50 charged for the standard safety inspection.

For car owners whose vehicles don’t pass the emissions test, the state could provide financial assistance to either repair the vehicle or get it off the road. “If you’re at two times the federal poverty level, we will help with the repairs up to a certain amount, or give you $1,000 to scrap your vehicle,” said Blood. “If you can’t get it fixed for the amount of money we’re ready to give you for the repairs, you can actually get exempted from the program.”

A similar effort in Dallas and Houston has helped hundreds of people bring their cars into compliance, said Hazel Barber of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). “We have been running a low-income assistance repair program in the Houston and Dallas areas for just about a year now, and while it took a lot of time to set it up so that it was as user-friendly as possible, it is now running reasonably smoothly,” she told the Council. “We’ve given repair assistance to over five thousand vehicles and we have given retirement assistance to about 200 vehicles. The money we use comes from the vehicle inspection and maintenance fee.”

Curbing vehicle emissions is only one part of the proposed plan. Drive-through businesses would be asked to encourage their customers to park and come inside on Ozone Action days, and users of diesel vehicles could be asked to use cleaner-burning diesel fuel. Operators of smaller diesel-powered equipment, such as lawn mowers, could also face additional regulations. “The commercial lawn and garden industry has volunteered to be licensed, which is something that they have fought previously,” said Blood. “Part of the licensing would be that they find a way of reducing their emissions by 20 percent over what we consider the baseline to get a license.”

Other possibilities for reducing ozone include installing vapor-recovery equipment on pumps at Central Texas gas stations, asking major employers to institute programs to reduce the time their employees spend commuting and asking local dry-cleaners to adopt new, lower-emissions technology.

Austin Mayor Will Wynn noted that most of the measures will have some cost to them, but stressed the need to move forward with the program. “The vehicle inspection and maintenance issue is going to be a cost to our citizens,” he said. “The vast majority of cars on the road will pass that test. But there will be 5 or 8 percent of the cars that will not pass. As controversial as it may be, we need to have that debate soon.” He also praised surrounding counties for their willingness to participate in the efforts to clean up the air, despite air quality problems not being as visible in those communities. “I believe it’s incumbent upon the City of Austin to lead our regional delegation in this effort,” he said. “But I can’t tell you how impressive it is to see elected officials in Williamson and Hays counties taking the same approach that we here in the City of Austin and Travis County are taking.”

Over the next month, Blood and other staff members will meet one-on-one with City Council members about these proposals. They will also begin making presentations to other government agencies and community groups. The Council is scheduled to vote on the Clean Air Action Plan in early December, after which it will go on to the TCEQ and EPA for their approval in January 2004.

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Sadowsky lauded . . . At last week’s Council meeting Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman defended city Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky after a citizen questioned his expertise in trying to convince the Council to go along with the Historic Landmark Commission’s recommendation. Goodman said Sadowsky is an expert in matters historic and his opinions are important, noting that he holds an MA from Middle Tennessee State University, a JD from Washburn University and a BA from Vanderbilt University. He served for ten years as the architectural historian for TxDOT and taught history for two years at Middle Tennessee State University . . . “We don’t just hire anybody for these jobs” . . . Changing of the guard . . . Elliott McFadden, who has served as executive director of the Travis County Democratic Party, sent out a farewell email last week, saying he would leave the job “in the very capable hands of our new Executive Director, Elizabeth Yevich.” McFadden said he would join former TCDP Communications Director Marcus Sanford to form a political consulting firm called Ignite Consulting ( The pair plan to continue the Democratic fight by helping candidates . . . Tonight’s meetings . . . The Design Commission will meet at 5:45pm tonight at 1011 San Jacinto in the Third Floor Conference Room. They will discuss the children’s Art Park at Town Lake and the Great Streets Program, among other items . . . The Music Commission will meet at 6pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . Health problems noted . . . Members of the environmental group PODER presented the results of their study of the health of residents near the Holly Power Plant to the City Council last week. Volunteers went door-to-door over the summer, asking people in the neighborhood if they had ever suffered from any of a variety of health problems. Of the adults who answered, 24 percent indicated they had allergies or headaches, 17 percent noted difficulty sleeping and 14 percent complained of hearing problems. But the study did not compare the rates of such health problems in the area around the plant to those found in Austin’s general population, nor did it point to a common cause for those health problems . . . Street closures likely today . . . Movie crews will be filming downtown today, with the possibility of intermittent closings on 4th, 5th and 6th Streets, between Congress and Colorado until 8pm. The filming also will affect parking on 7th Street.

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