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Planning Commission says ‘No’ to demolition

Tuesday, June 6, 2006 by

Panel recommends historic zoning over owners’ objections

The new owners of a 78-year-old home in Clarksville have lost another round to block a proposal to apply historic zoning to their property. The Planning Commission voted last week to endorse the proposal for historic zoning on the property at 1710 W. 10th, but the owners say the home is too dilapidated to repair.

Previously, both the Historic Landmark Commission and the city’s Historic Preservation Office recommended historic zoning for the property, which sits in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

The home was built in approximately 1928 for its first owners, Daniel and Gertrude Bolden. Records show Daniel Bolden listed his occupation as a laborer, and the lived in the house during the 1930’s before moving out sometime before 1940. The house was a rental property until 1958 when it was bought by Timothy and Blanche Higgins. They used the home as their primary residents, then later as a rental property.

Patrick Sutton bought the property earlier this year and is seeking permission to demolish the structure to build a new 2,000 square-foot home, garage, and small office on the property.

"We bought it knowing that it was in terrible condition. The only reason we were even willing to buy the house and go through the process that we felt we would be exempt from historic review," Sutton said. "No one tried to protect the house while it was on the market. We talked to the seller, the Higgins family, they could tell us nothing. They told us they had no idea it could be considered historic."

Sutton’s real estate agent, Jennifer Korba, told Commissioners she had been aware of the historic nature of the Clarksville neighborhood and that the Sutton family had investigated the possibility of preserving the existing house.

"Their first concern was can it be salvaged, and the answer was very quickly ‘no.’ I don’t see any integrity here to the house to be saved," she said. "We talked to the Higgins’ at length, I talked to their agent. No one could tell us of any historical significance to this house. Mr. Higgins talked to his brothers and sisters, he said ‘We can’t think of anything that possibly could have gone on there that warranted any historical significance.’ They really did a lot of due diligence before going through with the sale of this house."

The report from Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky focused on the home’s presence in the historic Clarksville neighborhood, not the historic significance of the Higgins or Bolden families. "What we are trying to do is preserve the character of the street and the neighborhood and adaptively re-use that structure…or whatever portion that they can of that structure in their proposal for a new house," he said. "It’s a question of keeping what’s historic. It’s going to be a new house in an old neighborhood, and as charming as I’m sure it’s going to be, it’s not the historical fabric."

But Sutton argued that the home had deteriorated so badly that it could not be preserved.

"There are people who will stare reality in the face and deny it. This house has been neglected for 40 years. No one has protected this house," he said. He presented photos and also a report from an outside expert to bolster his claim. "The only evidence you have is this house does not retain sufficient structural integrity to be considered historic. Houses that don’t have structural integrity are exempt from historic status. That is one of the standards. Where is the opposition’s evidence? There is none. They have made a political position that this house needs to be saved because it’s part of their neighborhood."

But Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky disputed Sutton’s claim that a home’s structural integrity could play a factor in the staff’s recommendation on historic zoning. "The criteria for historic designation say that a house must maintain its integrity of design and materials enough to maintain its historic appearance," he said. "The integrity issue does not address the soundness of the house or the building, just that it looks the way it did historically."

Commissioner Cid Galindo took issue with that premise. "I think this one is too far gone," he said. "I think it would be unjust to impose this cost on someone who has made this investment for their family. There’s been enough evidence presented to us this evening to show that it’s just not practical to be able to restore this home, and I think the owners are going to in good faith put a home there that is going to blend with the neighborhood and won’t be a McMansion. In general, we need to do a better job of getting to our historic structures sooner. This is not the way to deal with them."

But the majority of the commission felt the home contributed to the historic fabric of the Clarksville neighborhood and deserved to be preserved. "I’m really concerned about the historical integrity of the neighborhood. If they can restore the Susanna Dickinson house, they can restore anything. It’s not easy. I know that this is a really difficult situation for the owners. This is a piece of Austin we cannot afford to lose," said Commissioner Mandy Dealey.

Commissioner Dave Sullivan moved to zone the home historic as recommended by the staff and HLC. "I see many old houses for which a significant amount of work has been done to preserve them. I’ve heard from people that houses could not be restored and then they have been restored," he said. "I have seen many houses in this area that have been turned around and have families living in them." The vote for historic zoning was 7-1, with only Galindo opposed.

The Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Rail District continues to refine and review its projections on both the ridership numbers and economic benefits of a commuter rail line between Austin and San Antonio, but the source of initial funding for a starter line is still cloudy with little hopes of securing federal New Starts funding.

The overall ridership projections for the line are not shabby – they are comparable to the ridership of the Trinity Railway Express between Dallas and Fort Worth. But Ross Milloy, interim executive director for the rail district and head of the Corridor Council, held out little hope for federal assistance at Friday’s board meeting. The Federal Transit Administration’s money primarily goes to the extension of existing commuter rail lines with proven track records rather than new rail proposals.

The Austin-San Antonio rail line also faces some other challenges. The rail line’s best ridership projections are based on the creation of transit-oriented developments around each of the rail line’s 15 stations. In a best-case scenario – one in which each transit-oriented development also would coincide with a tax-increment finance district – increases in property values would be rolled into the cost of creating and maintaining the rail line.

According to the 2030 projections from Charles Heimsath of Capitol Market Research, the region’s population within two miles of a rail station would almost double if a transit-oriented development model was implemented around the 15 stations. A total of 272,210 households without the TOD would become 443,632 with the model. According to regional demographics, the total population of the eight-county region – which would include Williamson, Travis, Hays, Bexar, Guadalupe, Comal, Caldwell and Bastrop counties – would be in the range of 5.6 million people in 2.1 million households.

From these best-case scenario numbers, the rail district has made ridership forecasts. The overall total of passenger trips, between Georgetown to the redevelopment of Kelly Air Force Base, now known as KellyUSA, would be around 3.2 million. The forecasts also break down trips by segment: Downtown Austin to Downtown San Antonio would be around 1.1 million; Round Rock to San Marcos would be 2.1 million; and San Marcos to San Antonio would be 573,000 trips.

Using those assumptions, a number of starter projects, and their costs, were discussed: Round Rock to Downtown Austin, for instance, would be 18.6 miles of track, with a projected weekday ridership of 6,560, at a cost of about $100 million. Downtown Austin to Downtown San Antonio would be 79.7 miles of track, with a weekday ridership of 5,460, would be a cost of $374.6 million. And to building out the full track, from Georgetown to KellyUSA, would be 112.4 miles of track, with a weekday ridership of 11,520 and a projected cost of $611.6 million. That’s using primarily existing rail tracks.

Most commuter rail and light rail systems do start out in the same place where the Austin-San Antonio Intermunicipal Rail District is – with limited funding. Public Financial Management presented a number of scenarios on how local jurisdictions fund start lines. Craig Hoshijima presented a variety of scenarios at the board meeting: allocation percentages based on boardings, rail miles, population and stations.

For instance, projections show that Austin’s five stations would account for about half the boardings, if boardings were the factor being considered. If the number of stations were used, Austin’s share would be about a quarter of the cost allocation, with San Antonio picking up a third of the initial cost. If county population were used, then Bexar County would carry about half the cost, followed by Travis County with 30 percent and Williamson County with 11 percent of the cost.

If rail miles were used, both Austin and San Antonio would pick up a quarter of the cost, with other jurisdictions such as Kyle/Buda, New Braunfels and Round Rock picking up their share. Cost could also vary by what was being covered – initial capital costs, ongoing operation costs or system-wide costs.

Al Notzen, executive director of the Alamo Area Council of Governments, warned his fellow rail district board members that the choice on allocating the initial cost likely would make or break the rail system. Find a fair equitable way to share the cost and the formula will stand the test of time. Find something less equitable and it could do nothing more than result in a bunch of infighting among local governments, he concluded.

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

New post for Frazier . . . Sandra Frazier, aide to Mayor Pro Tem Danny Thomas, has landed a new job with the Solid Waste Services Department. Frazier says she will be a program coordinator in the department beginning on July 10. In the meantime, she and other aides are working hard to get ready for this week’s City Council agenda—which may keep a lot of people up late, since there are 125 items to handle. That includes some controversial zoning cases and a hearing on the rules for "McMansions." The Planning Commission will hold a hearing on the task force’s proposals at 7pm tonight in Room 325 of One Texas Center …. Mayors endorse plug-in hybrids . . . On Monday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors unanimously endorsed a resolution encouraging the use of plug-in hybrid vehicles as an important step in reducing this country’s reliance on foreign oil and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. "This vote shows the increasing interest in plug-in hybrids," said Mayor Will Wynn, chair of the USCM Energy Committee. "Plug-in hybrids reduce dependency on foreign oil, lower fuel costs for cities and their citizens, reduce air pollution in our cities, and increase the use of renewable energy," Wynn said. The Mayor has led the city’s efforts to on the national Plug-in Partners campaign . . . Another job . . . Wynn was also elected to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Advisory Committee, where he will continue to work on energy issues but also be engaged on a broader list of issues . . . Street musicians . . . Members of the Austin Music Commission are raising concerns with the city over how the wording of the city’s Public Order Ordinance will affect street musicians. At last night’s meeting, some members said a strict interpretation of the ordinance could ban street musicians from the downtown area. Specifically, they are concerned with provisions that prohibit sitting or lying on the street, meaning that musicians would have to perform standing. They also voiced concerns that an open guitar case could be interpreted as soliciting donations. Commission Chair Theresa Ferguson said she would take the commission’s worries to City Manager Toby Futrell, who could consider making an administrative determination on the rules . . . Meetings . . . The Zoning and Platting Commission meets at 6pm in Council Chambers at City Hall . . . The Travis County Commissioners meet at 9am in Commission Chambers at 314 W. 11th St. . . . The Williamson County Commission meets at 9:30am at the County Annex on Inner Loop Drive in Georgetown . . . Financing options . . . Travis County Commissioners have scheduled an item on pass-through toll financing at today’s court meeting. Transportation and Natural Resources Executive Director Joe Gieselman will present the item, with the Texas Department of Transportation in the audience, at 2pm. Pass-through financing, toll opponents argue, is one option for financing proposed toll roads, but highway department officials say the financing method is reserved for roads with volumes far less than freeways . . . Toll road meeting . . . A community forum is scheduled for Tuesday night to hash out the issues surrounding the exits off the proposed SH 71 East toll road through Northeast Austin. Two of the proposed exits are on roads that have yet to be built by the county: Tuscany Way and Arterial A. Community members are split over the issue. The open house portion of the meeting starts at 6pm. An explanation of the toll road exits will begin at 6:30pm. The meeting will be LBJ High School . . . Good news, bad news for SOS . . . When the Save Our Springs Alliance lost its lawsuit against the Lazy 9 Municipal Utility District, the judge awarded a rather staggering amount in attorneys fees to the MUD– $294,000. In addition, the judge sanctioned SOS attorney Bill Bunch for "filing a frivolous lawsuit and for filing a lawsuit for an improper purpose." The sanction would have meant an additional $5,000 if upheld. The Court of Appeals has upheld the attorneys fees but rejected the sanction, finding that the Travis County court ruled properly in finding against SOS and granting the fees but that the lawsuit was not filed "for an improper purpose." If the case is appealed to the Supreme Court, SOS could be on the hook for an additional $20-$50,000 should it lose in that arena.

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