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HLC says railroad houses should be saved

Wednesday, February 11, 2004 by

Commission listens to neighbors, disregarding staff recommendation

The Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) split 5-2 in favor of initiating the historic zoning process on three small houses in the Old West Austin neighborhood after hearing further pleas from neighbors against allowing demolition of the turn-of-the-century structures this week. Alex Muskin, owner of properties at 802, 804 and 806 West Lynn, wants to tear down the houses to make way for new development.

Last week, neighborhood advocate Robin Carter told the commission that her research showed that Ira Hobart Evans built the three frame houses rented by rail employees. Evans ran the Austin Street Railway Company and was a Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 3, 2004.)However, Carter is not a historian, and this week she apologized to the commission for confusing the houses in question with those across the street. Those errors did not stop her from arguing passionately that the houses are examples of “section housing,” and once upon a time housed railroad employees.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky recommended against historic designation—as he did last week—noting that the houses are not in especially good condition and met only four of 13 possible criteria for historic designation. He also pointed out that one of the houses had a modern addition and that two of the houses have modern porches. Sadowsky told In Fact Daily that neighborhood historians could not substantiate the date of construction or even where they were built.

Jim Bennett, representing the property owner, told the commission, “There is no factual evidence that this is a railroad house.” Although some railroad employees may have lived in the houses, the properties supplied living quarters for a number of non-railroad employees, he said. Sensing that the majority of the commission was against demolition, Bennett left the hearing as soon as Commissioner Jim Fowler made a motion to deny the demolition permit and begin the historic zoning process.

Fowler praised the neighbors for their research endeavors. “We have to make a moral judgment based on what we know . . . Whether these were actually owned by the railroad here is irrelevant. They were worker houses. One of the problems to me is a simplification of the cultural and economic landscape.” He then discussed a small town in Maine that appeared to be inhabited entirely by ship’s captains and others of similar social standing. “They cleaned out the worker houses,” he said, with a plea that the same thing should not happen in Austin. “These are physical manifestations of what made this community what it is . . . all the ‘shotgun’ houses are gone. There are just seven left.”

HLC Chair Lisa Laky seconded the motion. She said it would be better to save them now even if they were demolished at some point in the future.

Commissioner David West objected, based on practical considerations. Even if the owner does not take a wrecking ball to the structures, he said, “it doesn’t stop them from being demolished by neglect . . . I don’t see this becoming a park. Who’s there to actually restore these houses?”

Laky retorted, “That’s not our job. I didn’t hear anybody say these were not (railroad) section houses. I know it’s a political hot potato and I don’t care.”

Commissioner Patti Hansen, who joined West in opposing the motion, said, “There are other houses like this in Clarksville.” However, she commended the neighborhood on the inclusion of historic housing in their neighborhood plan.

The matter will now go to the Planning Commission and then to the City Council.

Parking variance for school, restaurant still on hold

Posting error postpones matter another month

The deadline for the operators of the Parkside Community School and Casa de Luz Restaurant to find additional parking has been extended once again. The Board of Adjustment approved another postponement of the school’s request for a parking variance, this time because of problems with the posting of the item on the BOA agenda. Nearly 100 people, most of them in support of the variance request, had packed the meeting room on the third floor of One Texas Center in anticipation that the case would be resolved.

The posting listed the variance request as decreasing the minimum number of off-street parking spaces from 68 to 10. However, school representative Kent Butler told board members that even 10 might not be feasible since the school may be required to leave space available for a fire lane and a fire hydrant. “There is a question as to how we should proceed . . . We’re certainly ready to proceed,” he said. “But there’s a question as to whether it has been properly posted.” Instead of room for ten parking spaces in front of the building, he said, a fire lane and fire hydrant would only leave room for two spaces.

City staff concurred that the posting language was problematic and recommended a postponement, telling board members that the information regarding the minimum number of spaces was provided in time to be reflected in the posting of the agenda. “I made a statement at the last meeting that I wanted to get this thing out of here,” said Chairman Herman Thun. (See In Fact Daily, Jan. 13, 2004). “I made the statement that I wanted this thing to come back once, and never again . . . and if it wasn’t fixed I’d make a motion to deny.”

Thun concluded that the posting problems were not the fault of the applicant, the Shambala Corporation, and that the supporters of the school should not be penalized for those problems. “It seem to me that there is legitimate reason to postpone this,” he said. “To be fair, if you can’t get the ten and you can only get the two, then I think we ought to be talking about what you can do. That’s only fair, and even though this had been dragging I would certainly agree to a postponement for one more month.”

The decision to postpone was 4-1, with Board Member Betty Edgemond opposed. The item will be reposted for the March 8 agenda. That will be the fifth time the variance goes before the BOA.

Cities are naturally congested, says expert

Marshall says grid still best layout for neighborhoods

Traffic snarls will be a part of Austin’s future because it’s the nature of cities to be congested, the transportation consultant for Envision Central Texas told a Downtown Austin Alliance luncheon yesterday.

Congestion can’t be avoided. The trick is figuring out how to manage that congestion, Norm Marshall told the quarterly meeting of the DAA.

The title of Marshall’s talk was “Effects of Transportation on Land Use,” but it could have been entitled “How Land Use Strategies Can Manage Transportation Issues.” Marshall told the group land use and transportation management go hand-in-hand.

Land use is the most powerful transportation strategy, Marshall said. Most urban areas rely too much on large roadways to resolve congestion issues, a strategy that generally results in even greater sprawl and congestion. Ignoring a strategy on collectors and arterial streets results in bottlenecks at the “nodes” where collectors join arterials.

Marshall’s group, Vermont-based Smart Mobility, has previously proposed transportation network solutions in Chicago and Baltimore. Smart Mobility also compiled four transportation network strategies for the Envision Central Texas project.

The typical pattern for urban areas is to manage congestion by adding larger roads, then upgrade two-lane arterials to four-lane arterials, four-lane arterials to six-lane arterials, and so forth, Marshall said.

That strategy fails to address the real issues because it does nothing but increase convergence on major roadways, said Marshall, quoting author Anthony Downs’ theory of induced travel. Downs says traffic is a self-adjusting relationship among different routes, times and modes of transportation.

Drivers typically gravitate to the quickest, easiest routes to move from one location to another. And while cities like Atlanta and Houston have pledged to “build themselves out” of congestion with more pavement, the strategy is often difficult to implement.

No matter how a major road is expanded, traffic continues to collect in bottlenecks at those places where feeder roads connect to arterials. Transit is difficult in such situations because it requires frequent stops, moving in and out of neighborhoods that often end in dead-end streets or cul de sacs.

Marshall’s suggested strategy is a “bottom up” rather than “top down” approach to transportation planning. Roadways within subdivisions must be connected in such a way that they create straight arterials, encouraging walking and discouraging turns. The result is the deceptively simple “grid” pattern typical of most traditional cities.

In Texas, Denton has made a commitment to a city connectivity ordinance. The ordinance requires developers to pay for infrastructure on a proposed grid. A member in the audience raised the issue of increased infrastructure cost, but Marshall suggested that the cost of such infrastructure would not be excessively high.

Some of Marshall’s suggestions are counter-intuitive. Three-lane roads, he said, can often be more efficient than four-lane roads because they lack turn lanes and discourage racing between two lanes going in the same direction.

Marshall also touched on the creation of effective transit systems. The most successful transit systems in Europe and the United States integrate local bus or streetcars with rapid transit and commuter rail/intercity rail with infrequent stops.

In areas like Chicago, express trains and slower trains are staggered. An express service train is followed by a multi-stop train, which is followed by an express train. The intention is to create a schedule that addresses the different demands of the region.

One way to control access to enlarged freeways is congestion pricing, Marshall said. Toll roads are a good way to balance the needs of drivers with the expenses of construction.

Austin Energy to join call for carbon controls . . . The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) plans to hold a press conference this morning in Washington, DC, calling for mandatory carbon controls on all utilities. Austin Energy Vice President Roger Duncan will join WWF officials, among others, to announce Austin’s support for the idea. AE’s strategic plan calls for the utility to meet 20 percent of its energy needs through renewable sources by 2020. That plan calls for another 15 percent of energy needs to be met by energy efficiency measures. Carbon emissions from utilities are a major component of greenhouse gases, which are blamed for global warming. Duncan said, “Austin Energy believes that all utilities need to make a commitment to collectively reduce our carbon emissions. Unfortunately, we do not think that the voluntary efforts to date have been successful.” (Note: Duncan is the husband of In Fact Daily editor Jo Clifton) . . . ACC announcement . . . Jeffrey Richard, vice president of education for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, will announce his candidacy for the Austin Community College Board of Trustees at 10:30am this morning at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 500 N. IH-35. Former Mayor Bruce Todd, who is serving as Richard’s campaign treasurer, will master the brief ceremony. Other speakers include former Texas Education Agency executive Albert Black; Dan Bullock, founder of Austin Adopt-a-School; and Susan Dawson, CEO of the Athens Group and past Chair of the Greater Austin Chamber . . . Heart attack survivors reunite . . . Today, emergency responders from the City of Austin and Travis County will have the opportunity to reunite with cardiac arrest patients they have saved. “Survivor Austin II: Keep the Beat Alive” is a celebration for cardiac arrest survivors and their rescuers. The event will be held from 2-4 pm, at the Renaissance Austin Hotel, 9721 Arboretum Boulevard . . . Meeting tonight . . . The Austin Women’s Political Caucus will meet at 5:30pm in Travis County Commissioners Court for endorsements . . . The Telecommunications Commission is scheduled to meet at 7:30pm in Room 304 of City Hall . . . The Historic Preservation Task Force will meet at 6pm in Room 240 of One Texas Center. The Saltillo District Redevelopment Project Community Advisory Group will meet at San Jacinto Towers, Third Floor Conference Room at 6pm . . . Howard Lane benefits. . . Howard Lane will benefit from excess funds from Travis County’s 1984 bond issue. The full surplus of $1.1 million in Precinct 1 will be spent on the engineering design of Howard Lane between Dessau Road and Cameron Road, as well as on the design of Howard Lane from the Harris Branch subdivision out to the city limits . . . County jail agreement . . . County Commissioners approved the extension of a jail agreement with Limestone County on the consent portion of its agenda on Tuesday. The contract would cover any inmates over the state-mandated jail limits set by the state. Recent measures in the jail and court system have cut the inmate population to the point where the contract option remained unused over the last year . . . County delays Milburn . . . The county’s agreement with Milburn Homes related to the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the county’s first public swimming pool was delayed for another week. The pool, if approved, would serve East Metro Park . . . The Housing Authority of Travis County has proposed a lease-to-own program for families. A working group is moving forward to hammer out details on the program.

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