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Neighborhood arguments put demolition on hold

Tuesday, February 3, 2004 by

Sadowsky says houses lack significance, integrity of materials

Conflicting information on the pedigree of three small turn-of-the-century houses on West Lynn Street in Old West Austin caused the Historic Landmark Commission to leave a pending demolition permit on hold last week.

The three simple tiny wood-frame homes, built around 1906, were not considered a priority under the city’s 1984 Comprehensive Cultural Resources Survey. Nor did the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association(OWANA) list the three houses as historic when it applied for National Register District designation.

Still, civic leaders argued the homes should be preserved as part of the fabric of the Old West Austin neighborhood. Linda McNeilege argued that the houses should be preserved as part of the approval of the OWANA’s neighborhood plan. The City Council approved that plan almost four years ago.

“In our neighborhood plan, we say that we should protect the existing residential property of the neighborhood,” McNeilege told the commission. “Preservation of the existing older residential structures is imperative to the character and definitions of the neighborhood, which is now a National Register District.”

That’s an issue that has been raised frequently at recent HLC meetings—an issue that may soon be addressed by the Historic Preservation Task Force.

With the threat of a demolition permit looming, the HLC initiated historic designation for the properties, which are clustered together on West Lynn at West Eighth Street. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky recommended against historic designation, a position he has taken on many recent demolition permits.

Of the 13 criteria set out in the current historic landmark ordinance, Sadowsky said the houses met only three: as a representation of the city’s culture as housing for blue-collar workers; as distinctive buildings related to a culture of a historic area, otherwise known as Old West Austin; and portrayal of the environment of people who lived in Austin at a particular time in history.

Sadowsky said the design of the houses was common and he questioned the historical integrity of the buildings. In his recommendation, Sadowsky wrote, “None of them retain their integrity of materials or design completely.”

Many of the criteria to support historic designation in the current ordinance appear to overlap, a matter the Historic Preservation Task Force is addressing in a review of the ordinance. And, under the current ordinance, the buildings only need to meet one criterion, a standard far lower than the proposed revised ordinance.

Old West Austin neighbors argued that, after their own extensive research, it was clear the buildings had a tie to Austin’s railroad past. Robin Carter provided the commissioners with extensive documentation that showed that the three frame houses were owned by the railroad and rented by rail employees at the turn of the century. More than 400 residents of the area signed a petition supporting historic designation.

Based on Carter’s research, Ira Hobart Evans built the three houses. Evans, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and the youngest person ever elected Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, ran the Austin Street Railway Company. The three houses were section housing at the end of the trolley line for railroad employees, Carter said.

While Carter admitted she was no archivist, she said that her work had been checked by a number of railroad museums in the state and a local historical archivist.

Carter’s presentation was so impressive that commissioners appeared to lean heavily toward historic designation. Even when Carter’s historic account was brought into question, Chair Lisa Laky continued to push for historic designation, saying that regardless of the history, the structures met enough criteria to meet the designation.

Consultant Jim Bennett, on the other hand, argued in some frustration that the neighbors did not sit outside the Fresh Plus supermarket arguing the historic qualities of the three houses. Bennett showed commissioners the OWANA website that asked residents to instead rally to oppose high-rise apartment development.

Bennett said nothing in his title search that indicated the properties had any serious ties to the railroad and that his understanding of railroad section housing was that it was disassembled and moved from place to place as the rail line was put down.

Sadowsky’s research seemed to support that point; it indicated that the mix of people who rented the three houses was far broader than railroad employees. Directories showed that the people who lived there included a foreman, a postal carrier, a barber and a laundress, in addition to railroad employees.

After some discussion, most commissioners agreed that the history of the structures needed further research. Jim Fowler said he wanted to make sure any vote was based on accurate data. Laurie Limbacher said she could not vote until she understood whether the buildings were, indeed, examples of railroad section housing.

Commissioners agreed to continue the vote on the houses to the next called meeting. Sadowsky agreed to review and compare the material provided by Bennett and Carter, as well as his own research on the three houses.

Task force awaiting tax abatement information

Betts raises questions about current commission's standards

The Historic Preservation Task Force had every intention of voting on a proposal on tax abatements last week, but the need for additional information delayed the effort.

The task force has already approved criteria for what constitutes an historic building., Chair Betty Baker had wanted to decide which historic buildings should qualify for tax abatements—after holding the subject at arm’s length for a number of weeks while the task force discussed other issues such as the criteria for historic designation.

Austin currently offers the most generous tax abatement for historic buildings in the country. For residential properties, the tax abatement is 100 percent on the structure and 50 percent on the land. For commercial buildings, it’s 50 percent on the structure and 25 percent on the land. The city offers no abatements for rehabilitations.

Even with such generous incentives, only 400 structures have made it through the historic preservation process in the 30 years of the ordinance’s existence. That total amounts to only $591,000 on the city’s tax bill. Potentially, however, thousands of buildings could qualify for tax abatements under the city’s current ordinance.

Several owners of historic buildings pled eloquently for the preservation of the current tax abatement system. Bill Ball, a partner in the Brown Building restoration, spoke of the tax dollars the city gains when a developer restores a vacant historic building. Mike Mullen, owner of a historic house on Duval, said developers were chomping at the bit to subdivide his large lot in the University area before it was given landmark designation in 1985. And Charlie Betts, a member of the original Historic Landmark Commission, said the $592,000 it cost the city was well worth the history it preserved.

Betts was also willing to raise the specter of what he called “the elephant in the room.” During Betts’ term on the commission, structures needed to satisfy 9 or even 10 out of the 13 criteria to be seriously considered for landmark designation. That standard has fallen drastically in recent years, Betts told the commission.

“If that bar had been maintained, we would not be here tonight,” Betts said. “I recognize that’s a judgment call and a judgment exercise on the part of the Historic Landmark Commission, but it’s part of the reason we’re here tonight.”

The task force could whittle that abatement down in a number of ways. First, they could decide that those 400 buildings already deemed historic no longer qualify for tax abatements, or qualify for something less than the current 100 percent abatement. A number of owners of historic homes said they were hopeful that abatements could be grandfathered, but if that doesn’t happen, the owners hope that the reduction would be gradual.

Second, the task force could raise the bar on the criteria for those buildings that are now entering the system for abatements, deeming only some historic buildings eligible for abatements. Or third, the task force could decide to give graduated abatements, varying in degree based upon the age of the structure, with greater abatements going to older structures. A 50-year-old structure, for example, might be worth 50 percent of the total abatement figure, while a 75-year-old building would be entitled to the full amount.

What finally stymied discussion was Zoning and Platting Commissioner Keith Jackson’ s concern that they didn’t have a clear idea of the number of structures in the city that could qualify as historic. The Historic Landmark Commission has approved an average of only 26 buildings each year for the last three years. Hundreds of buildings are considered contributing structures in the city’s historic districts like Pemberton Heights, Hyde Park and Clarksville.

Jackson said his idea of what he would be willing to offer in tax abatements would depend on the number of buildings they were talking about. He said he did not want to go before the City Council with a proposal without a clear understanding of the implications of his policy.

Commissioner Terri O’Connell made a motion to freeze the abatements of all historic buildings currently in the city system. That motion was substituted with one by Jackson, asking for ballpark number of structures that could enter the system. Then attorney Jerry Harris offered a substitute motion to ask for the information that Jackson requested and asked for a continuance of the vote on tax abatements to a future meeting.

Harris’ motion eventually passed, with O’Connell voting against it. She was a bit frustrated she could not get the task force’s commitment to preserve the abatements on houses already in the system. While most commissioners openly favored the proposal, they agreed to hold off on a vote until they had the additional information.

How Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky would come up with a number of structures that could be historic was the subject of some debate. After further discussion, Sadowsky said he would review the documentation of historic surveys that appeared in either neighborhood plans or applications for National Register Districts.

The task force also agreed to discuss the possibility of setting one age for historic preservation and another age for tax abatements. The thought was that older buildings required more money to maintain and should be entitled to greater abatements. Everyone voted for that proposal except Jim Christianson, who said he considered all structures deemed historic to be equally worthy of exemptions.

South Austin Democrats’ endorsements . . . Last night, more than 80 members of South Austin Democrats endorsed Congressman Lloyd Doggett for Congress Dist. 25 in the March 9 Primary. Celia Israel won the endorsement for Commissioner Pct. 1, beating out Commissioner Ron Davis, as well as Arthur Sampson and Kathy Bedford Smith. Greg Hamilton won the nod in the hotly contested race for Sheriff. Judge Gisela Triana beat out Jan Soifer and John Hathaway for 200th District Court; SAD endorsed StephenYelenosky for the 345th District Court and Nancy Hohengarten for County Court at Law # 5. The group also endorsed incumbent Luke Mercer for Pct. 1Constable, Richard McCain for Constable Pct. 3, and Maria Canchola, the incumbent, for Constable Pct. 4 . . . Is it something in the water? . . . Council Member Brewster McCracken and his wife, Mindy are busy getting ready for their first child around March 1. There have not been many new babies among Council members in recent years, but Council Member Raul Alvarez and wife, Teresa, have confirmed that they are expecting their first child in early July . . . Quick (diaper) change artist . . . Council Member Betty Dunkerley, who co-hosted a shower for the McCrackens last week, reports that attorney Richard Suttle won the baby-diapering contest, diapering his doll in 24 seconds . . . Changes at the Doggett campaign . . . Christian Archer and Mark Nathan, who signed on with the Lloyd Doggett Campaign for campaign management and consulting are now doing field work only. They decline to comment on the changes except to say all is well. No word yet on who the new campaign manager will be, but the office is busy making phone calls and mailing out letters to volunteers . . . New hire. . . Capital Metro has hired Carl Woodby as director of vehicle maintenance for StarTran, Inc. Capital Metro contracts with StarTran, an independent contractor, for the provision of operations’ personnel, including bus operators and mechanics. Woodby has direct responsibility for all fleet maintenance activities. He has more than 20 years of transit industry experience, most recently as manager of bus maintenance and equipment at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority in Buffalo, New York. Prior to that, he worked for fifteen years on a 200-vehicle fleet for Dallas Area Rapid Transit . . . Not the Republican . . . County Court at Law Judge David Phillips is not on the ballot this year, but he stood up to tell those attending last night’s South Austin Democrats meeting that he is not running for Congress in District 10. That’s the Republican Dave Phillips . . . Tonight’s meetings. . . The Zoning and Platting Commission and the MBE/WBE Advisory Committee will both meet at 6pm, the former at One Texas Center and the latter at the SMBR Department, 4100 Ed Bluestein. The Neighborhood Plan Committee of the Planning Commission is scheduled to meet at 5:30pm at One Texas Center. The Resource Management Commission will meet at 1:30pm at Cielo Center, Building 1, Suite 320, 1250 S. Capital of TX Hwy.

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