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Commissioners disagree on future of historic home

Tuesday, April 28, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The Historic Landmark Commission failed to pick up a majority on a case to rezone a historic property on West Avenue from single family to limited office at last night’s meeting, leaving the decisions up to the Planning Commission and Council.

The home at 1503 West Avenue already is zoned SF-3-H, reflecting its historic nature. Now the heirs of the recent owner want to rezone it LO-MU-H in order to sell the house to a small business. Either, as agent Jim Bennett suggested, you viewed this house, as the owner does, as simply one on a block that is already a small business district not unlike East Sixth Street and Lake Austin Boulevard or, as some neighbors see it, the house could be the tipping point for a residential neighborhood trying to avoid becoming another business district.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky tended to lean toward the owner’s viewpoint. As Sadowsky described in his supporting documentation, the trend to turn historic houses into small quaint offices and businesses – on West Avenue between 12th Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard — has been ongoing since 1979. The combination of LO-MU is intended to designate multiple uses for the property, which must retain its original historic façade and appearance if it intends to maintain its Historic designation and keep the tax breaks.

Local homeowners preferred to see the house maintained as a single-family residence. Walt Hornaday of the Judges Hill Neighborhood Association noted the large “for lease” signs that often went up on historic properties, and he showed photographs of homeless people sleeping on the stoops of area homes that were turned into business offices. Too often a historic LO zoning has meant additions to the back or requirements for additional business parking, he noted.

The Judges Hill neighborhood gathered 54 signatures to oppose the re-zoning. Bennett noted that the signatures did not constitute a valid petition, given the distance of the property owners from the West Avenue house.

Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey, who happened to be on hand to discuss his department’s budget, did note that new LO zoning would require a variance if the owner intended to maximize the allowances for parking. Bennett, on the other hand, noted that any parking variance would have to come before the Historic Landmark Commission, where commissioners could decide it was inappropriate.

The property also backs up to a parking lot of a local church. Bennett speculated it would be easy to rent parking spaces at the church on weekdays.

The Historic Landmark Commission was split on this one, and with Chair Laurie Limbacher and Commissioner Daniel Leary absent, it was impossible to get a four-vote majority necessary to pass the motion for – or against – the base zoning change.

Commissioners Joe Arriaga and John Rosato, both former city employees, leaned toward the pragmatic approach to the house. If the historic fabric and integrity could be maintained, then it was logical to allow the property, less than a block off the busy Enfield corridor, the chance to be used as a business. Arriaga, who works in the area, admitted he would find it difficult to live in a house on such a small lot so close to a major thoroughfare.

Commissioner Terrie Meyers, a historic preservationist, was more inclined to maintain the current single-family status.

“I have a lot of sympathy for the people who do live in the area,” Meyers said. “And if you mention that 50 percent is residential and 50 percent LO, we are at the tipping point, and maybe we do have the chance to retain the residential use in this area.”

If the commission were to approve LO zoning, it would only mean the likely return of a new owner on the property, one that could demand – and probably get – a parking variance because the land already would be zoned LO-MU-H, said Meyers.

On two votes – one in favor and one against LO zoning – the commission was split 3-2, with Timothy Cuppett, Patti Hansen and Meyers voting in favor of retaining single-family zoning and Arriaga and Rosato voting for office zoning. Without a 4-vote majority, the decision will be forwarded to the Planning Commission without a recommendation.

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