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Historic officer urges preservation of downtown historic treasures

Monday, April 20, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

At the Downtown Commission meeting last week, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky presented a survey that cataloged 54 historic buildings in the warehouse district, some more than a hundred years old. The new survey is something for the commission to consider as it updates the downtown “developability” map.

“The things that I want to stress in this presentation are that we’ve got a great number of buildings that are surprisingly intact,” Sadowsky said. “Many of them have modifications, like a new storefront and replacement windows and doors, but the ornamentation has not been removed, in most cases, and most retain their form. I think we’ve got a very good resource now to think about plans for preserving this.”

Sadowsky provided a slide show with specific examples of buildings that still have their original fenestration material: the old Marks Grain Co. warehouse on East 4th Street at Brazos Street; the Fine Papers building in the 200 block of West 4th Street; La Zona Rosa, which is located at West 4th Street and Rio Grande; and the old Hanseler Confectionary Warehouse, which is now Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop, at 4th Street and Nueces. Many of the buildings along the 300 block of Colorado Street, including Sullivan’s Steakhouse, may have modern windows but retain their original style. Sadowsky’s office surveyed the warehouse district with the boundaries of West Avenue on the west, East Avenue on the east, 2nd Street on the south and 6th Street on the north.

Early uses downtown often included car sales, one reason why so many buildings have housed garages. Dry goods stores also were common. Many were railway buildings, when the lines ran along 3rd Street, with a spur along 4th Street.

Only one building in the warehouse district has been designated as a historic landmark by the city – the Nelson Davis Warehouse, which houses the Spaghetti Warehouse. Sadowsky said he was interested in approaching owners to pursue historic designation on at least two other warehouse buildings.

Too much urban infill has occurred to do a contiguous historic preservation district, Sadowsky told the commissioners. He would like to consider some type of historic overlay if Austin implements form-based zoning. That prompted Commissioner Robert Knight to suggest that Sadowsky’s findings be incorporated into an impending, downtown developability plan. That plan would designate, block by block, what might be developed by a developer.

Those buildings that are designated historic must both maintain their historical appearance and integrity of materials and design, as well as social and cultural connections. And while not all of the doors and windows may be original, Sadowsky said buildings could be restored and possibly designated as landmarks.

Commissioner Mandy Dealey, delighted to hear Sadowsky’s assessment, asked what the Downtown Commission should take to preserve buildings.

“If any of ya’ll know me, I’m not without opinions,” Sadowsky admitted. “I have a couple of buildings where I would like to explore landmark designation with the owners, and I would also like to investigate the possibility of a non-contiguous overlay – more of a form-based code overlay – that would identify the buildings that have significance because of their character and should early special treatment.”

Commissioners discussed the possibility of the transfer of development rights. Commissioner Richard Weiss said it would be interesting to overlay the Capitol view corridors over existing historic structures to understand existing entitlements.

“It would be an interesting exercise, were we to get the support,” Weiss said.

Commissioner Susan Daniels noted it was critically important to get the city’s codes and regulations revised and updated. Many cities are moving toward form-based codes, which would provide an opportunity to recognize the intricacy of downtown.

The Downtown Commission took no action and left the report pending.

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