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Commission vote brings Marriott construction closer

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 by Austin Monitor

Developers of a planned $185 million Marriott Hotel complex moved a step closer to tearing down the small buildings currently housing the Las Manitas Café and two relocated businesses last week as the Historic Landmark Commission rejected a motion to begin historic zoning cases on the properties.

Prior occupants Tesoros Trading Company and Escuelita del Alma Child Care Center have left Congress Avenue, each relocating outside downtown. Commission debate centered over whether the Congress Avenue buildings qualified for historic designation.

Commissioner Patti Hansen, among others, was not pleased that many of the questions she posed about the historic integrity of the building and its history remained unanswered. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, who was in charge of the case, was absent from Monday night’s meeting. Colleague Susan Villarreal presented the case in Sadowsky’s absence.

Sadowsky had recommended the demolition permits on the 200 block of Congress Avenue, which includes addresses at 209, 211 and 213 Congress. Most of the buildings on the block were built in the early 1900s.

During much of its early history, the three-story Travis Hotel dominated the block. It sat across Congress from the city’s railroad station. Sometime before 1935, the top two stories were pulled off the Travis Hotel and the ground floor served a variety of functions, from cafes to the Rollings Pool Co. in the 1970s.

Cynthia Perez of Las Manitas was on hand to argue against the demolition. Perez noted she was alone because many of those who fought for Las Manitas and Escuelita del Alma had given up hope. She talked about the goal to create a space that would provide a bridge for new and old city leaders.

“My fight is not with my landlord,” Perez said. “My fight is with my city, and the direction it was growing and the benefit it was doing for the larger corporation.”

Hansen said Villarreal’s recitation of the facts in Sadowsky’s report still did not answer the issues she wanted to address: What in the current building was architecturally new and architecturally old? What is left of the original materials in the façade in the building?

Sadowsky recommended approving the demolition permits, with the proper Historic American Building survey of the buildings.

Attorney Michael Whellan, who represented the developer, argued that various parts of the building had been constructed and reconstructed over the years. He noted a portion of wall on the former Tesoros that might have indicated the end cap was bricked over more recently.

In his rebuttal, Whellan noted that Las Manitas – and its purpose as a bridge – was not lost. It was simply moving up the block to property owned by Perez.

Sadowsky’s report noted that the Pearl House on the corner, currently serving as the La Pena Art Gallery, was the only building to maintain its historic integrity. But that storefront looked the same as its neighbors, Hansen said. Even if the current balance of the structure was not the first version of the building, wouldn’t the existing framework still be historical? Hansen asked.

Terri Myers, the newest member on the Historic Landmark Commission, agreed with her. Whether the Travis Hotel was demolished or burned or somewhat went away, the existing structure still remains intact.

“They have not lost their historic character,” Meyers said. “And they were noted in the 1984 (city historic structure) survey as a Priority II. They exhibit, intact, the qualities of that period. We should spend a little more time researching this.”

Chair Laurie Limbacher recused herself from the Congress Avenue discussion because a former employee was a member of the Finley family, leaving only six commissioners to make a decision.

Myers moved for initiation of historic zoning. Hansen and Commissioner Dan Leary joined her, with Commissioners John Rosato and Timothy Cuppett and Joe Arriaga voting no. After the 3-3 vote, which resolved nothing, Leary asked for the vote to be reconsidered. He then changed his vote from yes to no, making it 4-2 against.

On Friday, Villarreal told In Fact Daily that the demolition permit is still pending. “In our national register historic districts, we normally review the plans for construction,” before the demolition permit is released. The city has not yet seen the plans.

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