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Council denies historic zoning for 'railroad houses'

Monday, April 5, 2004 by

Vote 6-0 with owner and staff opposition to change

The owner of three homes on West Lynn will be allowed to proceed with plans to demolish the structures, now that the City Council has rejected a request to grant historic zoning for the homes. The Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) initiated the request after a review of the demolition permit, a move supported by members of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association.

HLC Chair Lisa Laky attended the Council meeting to explain her group’s recommendation for the historic status, which city staff did not support. “I’m here to support the commission’s vote to recommend historic zoning for these three properties because they meet six of the criteria,” she said. “That’s a good number. I think that if this was a case where the owner was in favor of historic zoning, the answer would be ‘yes.’” However, the owner of the property had filed a valid petition against the zoning change. Laky told the Council she found the research done by neighborhood groups to be convincing, and she was confident the homes had been affiliated with the railroad.” These are unique because of their connection to the railroad and to the common person, the everyday person in Austin,” she said, “and in my six years on the Landmark Commission I have not seen any other type of structure that has this type of connection to the railroad. So I find these incredibly unique and important. These structures have a story to tell, and I think the citizens of Austin now and in the future deserve to hear it.”

Neighborhood representatives told Council members that the three homes had served as housing for railroad workers in the early 1900s, and were distinctive examples of the type of housing constructed by the railroad for its employees. “I have done a lot of research on these houses, and the picture has grown ever clearer about the back story of these houses,” said Robin Carter. She outlined the arrival of Ira H. Evans in Austin and his work to bring track for the International Great Northern Railway from Palestine to Austin. She offered documents showing that the railroad was granted permission to construct housing in the area. “We know that they’re section houses because we have a lot of records to show it,” she said.” The entirety of the site conforms to the standard plans in their dimension and their proximity to one another.” Evans was also involved in the creation of the Austin Street Railway Company, a trolley service, and Carter said workers for that company might have used the homes as well.

“These railway houses are not only integral to the fabric of the neighborhood, they are a manifestation of Texas history from more than 100 years ago,” added Linda MacNeilage, the chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association. “It was the very existence of the railroads that opened up the west and created a network of commerce and transportation. We are very fortunate to have three houses that have survived together as a unit, laid out in accordance with the standard plans of the railway’s construction for this kind of housing for its workers.”

But the recommendation from the city’s Historic Preservation Officer was to reject the historic designation. “A large number of employees of the Austin Street Railway Company occupied these houses at various times. That leads me to believe, to begin with, that these may be somehow connected with the Street Railway Company in Austin because they were first getting off the ground around 1900,” said Steve Sadowsky. “And they did have some property over in this neighborhood. But the ownership records for this property indicates the Street Railway Company and any railway company never owned this property.”

Although city records first show the homes on the property at 802, 804 and 806 West Lynn Street beginning in 1906, Sadowsky said there were no documents to show whether they were constructed on site or moved to the location. “I’m very hesitant to recommend historic zoning for these houses because we don’t know what their history is. We don’t know where they came from; we don’t know how old they are. Landmark designation is a very significant status for a property to have. The neighborhood association has done an incredible amount of research on this property and still, we don’t have an answer as to where these houses came from or how old they are or whether they are actually they are related to the railroads. There’s a possibility they are, a good possibility, but I can’t bring myself to recommend historic zoning for them not knowing truly what their pedigree is.”

The two agents for the owner of the property, attorney Richard Suttle and consultant Jim Bennett, pointed to that lack of documentation as a sign the homes were not worthy of the historic designation. “This property has never been owned by any railway,” said Bennett. And while he did concede that the homes had been occupied by railroad employees during their history, he noted that they had also served as housing for a nurse, a baker and an engineer at various times. He dismissed as speculation many of the local resident’s arguments as to the value of the homes. “You’ve heard a lot of stuff tonight,” he told the Council. “Try to weigh out those things that are emotional, those that are puffery and those that are pure baloney. There is no factual evidence that these are railroad houses ever owned by any railroad company.” He also pointed to modifications made to the homes from their original condition, and noted that one of the structures had been condemned by the city as substandard.

Suttle also questioned the results of the research performed by the neighbors of the home. “These houses are at best old houses,” he said. “They don’t meet the criteria. They don’t rise to the level to afford the protections and tax abatement that historic zoning was meant to provide,” he said.

One citizen used the public hearing on the case to criticize the city’s procedures for historic zoning, calling them a burden to property owners. “I’m concerned about the effect on the real estate business,” said Dick Rathgeber. “When is enough enough? You have a demolition permit, you check with the city staff, then you close. Then some group comes in and says this may be historic. When is it safe to buy a piece of property with a house on it? There’s an issue of fairness here.”

That argument struck a chord with Council Member Danny Thomas, who moved to deny the historic zoning. “I respect people that want to make things historic,” he said. But the gentleman that got up . . . what he said is very true. We need to decide when we are going to stop, when enough is enough. When people have property and they’re trying to do something to better the community, I feel we need to be more sensitive to that.”

Council Member Daryl Slusher sought assurance from the property owner that the new construction would be in keeping with the character of the surrounding neighborhood. Alan Muskin responded that while he had zoning of MF-4, which would allow multi-family, he actually intended to build homes that were more in line with the restrictions of the SF-3 zoning category. The one provision of the MF-4 rules he planned to follow was the one governing setbacks. Placing the homes on the lots closer to the street as allowed under MF-4, said Muskin, would actually be more in line with the other homes in the neighborhood, which were built before current setback requirements.

The Council voted 6-0 to deny the historic zoning, giving Muskin clearance to proceed with the demolition of the homes. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman went home ill before the discussion and vote.

Huntsman tract raises problem for Parks Department

Neighborhood Plan wins final approval without one tract

The City Council approved the Crestview Wooten Combined Neighborhood Plan on second and third readings Thursday, but representatives of the Huntsman Petrochemical were frustrated because a last-minute snag led the Council to approve zoning for their client’s property on second reading only.

The plan area includes a large swath of land bounded by Research Blvd., Burnet Road and Anderson Lane. Huntsman owns a 74-acre tract bounded by Lamar Blvd., Morrow Street and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. For the past 40 years or so, the Northwest Optimist Club has used about 17.5 acres of the land for ball fields. The company has signed a 20-year lease agreement with the club to show their willingness to allow the ball fields to remain—a goal that the neighborhood groups supported.

Neighborhood planner Scott Whiteman told the Council they could approve the same plan and zoning changes they had approved on first reading on March 4, with one change. He said a provision for giving Huntsman credit for dedicating open space for parkland had been removed from the ordinance due to concerns from the Parks and Recreation Department (PARD).

The problem arose a few days before the Council meeting when Huntsman tried to get assurance from PARD that the 17.5 acres would be counted as open space when the property is redeveloped. Under city ordinance, Huntsman would be required to dedicate about 12 acres of parkland when the property is subdivided.

Greg Strmska of Bury + Pittman, representing Huntsman, told the Council, “Our preference would be to go forward as it did on first reading. The dilemma is we’re basically at your mercy. We would like you to give us full credit for parkland dedication.

Whiteman hastened to say that PARD had not declined to accept the land. “They were concerned about being committed to taking them as parkland when it’s possible and likely that it will be leased to a private entity and it may not meet their criteria.” He added that the ordinance previously approved did not require that the open space be the ball fields in their current location. “It could be any portion of the site and they are concerned that they would end up with ownership of parkland that doesn’t meet their criteria or has other issues or maintenance concerns,” he concluded.

Mayor Will Wynn said, “It’s pretty remarkable what they’re doing. I just want to make sure they get credit for what they’re trying to do.”

Warren Streuss, acting PARD director, told the Council, “They are playing ball on it, doing a tremendous job with it, providing a wonderful service right now on that 17 acres. The question is do we want to assume the land that they already are using or do we want them to go ahead and turn it back to North Austin Optimist and let them have the land? They are going to use it for purposes of exactly what we want—recreation for our youth. That’s the key.”

However, Streuss noted that if Huntsman gives the property to the Optimists, they would only get half the credit. Half of 17.5 acres is less than the 12 that would normally be required . . . There would still be remaining parkland dedication. “What we were doing—since it’s going to be identified for open space—we were just saying when it comes for subdivision, that’s when we will go back and get parkland dedication.”

Wynn was not satisfied with that response and asked for legal advice from Assistant City Attorney Marty Terry. Terry told him it would be best to proceed on second reading only, promising to work out language that would cover the parkland dedication before third reading on April 15.

The Council approved most of the plan and rezoning cases on second and third readings, including one option requested by the owner of a tract at 8990 Research. The property owner requested his land be rezoned from LI to LI-CO-Neighborhood Plan. Neighborhood planners had recommended the zoning be changed to CS-NP. Council Member Brewster McCracken argued that leaving the possibility of industrial uses at the location would detract from the character of the neighborhood, which might redevelop more quickly as commercial space.

However, Jim Wittliff, representing the owner, told the Council his client would agree to a conditional overlay that would eliminate all LI uses except light manufacturing. He noted that the property is currently being used as a warehouse, which requires only CS zoning, but the owner preferred to keep the manufacturing option. Council Member Betty Dunkerley made the motion for LI with all uses but light manufacturing eliminated. The motion was approved 5-1-1, with McCracken voting no and Goodman out due to illness. However, the owner of two other industrially zoned tracts lost their bids to keep that designation.

Today’s meetings . . . Three members of the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport Plan Implementation Advisory Commission will meet with three members of the Planning Commission at 8am at the Rusk Law Firm, 910 Lavaca, to discuss the status of Mueller. Members of the Design Commission plan to discuss Brush Square and the other historic city parks. They are also scheduled to approve a revision to their governing ordinance. They meet at 5:45pm in the 8th Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center. Two other commissions, the Music Commission and the Renaissance Market Commission, plan to meet at 6pm. The former will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center and the latter at the Parks and Recreation Department boardroom on Riverside Drive. The Music Commission will be talking about some controversial items, including the future of the Austin Music Network, possible changes to the city noise ordinance and no smoking ordinance . . . Montopolis changes postponed. . . City planners requested a postponement from last week's Council agenda because the Planning Commission has not yet heard the case. The Council also agreed to postponement of a historic zoning case for a residence in Travis Heights. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman requested the delay because she was ill and had to leave the meeting early. That case will be heard on April 22, the same day the Council will consider changes to the city’s historic zoning ordinance . . . Approved . . . The Council did approve three zoning changes on all three readings without discussion. A lot at Ross Road and Elroy Road that had been zoned single-family-2 was approved for single-family-4A.small lot residential. Dwyer Realty Headquarters, which came into the city as I-RR, was changed to GR-MU. The property is at 9900 US Highway 290 East. Property at 7200 Chimney Corners Road, previously zoned GR community commercial, was rezoned single-family-5, as recommended by the Zoning and Platting Commission. . . Get rid of that gas guzzler . . . Gasoline-powered lawnmowers are responsible for a disproportionate amount of air pollution. These emissions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and adversely affect the health of many people. Citizens who have gas-powered lawnmowers will have a chance on Saturday to turn in their old polluters and get new electric mowers at a discount. The 3rd annual Central Texas Electric Lawnmower Program will be held from 8:30am to 2pm on Saturday, April 24th at the Home Depot on I- 35 South at Woodward Street. The mower discount and lawn care product giveaways add up to an $80.00 value on a cordless (battery pack), mulching model when accompanied with a gas-powered mower trade in. For more information please contact Scott Johnson at 447-4595.

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