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Office zoning denied for historic home in Judges Hill neighborhood

Monday, August 31, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Council closed the final chapter, for now, on the case of 1503 West Ave., a historic home in the Judges Hill neighborhood that wanted to be an office and failed.

When all was said and done – this case has wound its way through the commission process for months – Council was not inclined to grant office zoning on the property. In the eyes of the owners – two daughters of the late owner – the Dozier-Beal House was much like many of the historic properties along West Avenue between 13th and 18th streets: a tastefully appointed home that could look the same from the outside but serve as the office or residence/office of an attorney, accountant or architect who preferred to appeal of downtown.

Agent Jim Bennett represented the Beal family. In his presentation to Council, Bennett noted the mix of properties up and down West Avenue leaned heavily commercial, with a dozen home-turned-offices in the immediate area.

“Most of this area is residential looking, with the exception there are some commercial-looking office buildings, but primarily it is residential structures re-zoned as offices,” Bennett said. “These offices remain residential in flavor and character, and that’s exactly what a potential buyer might want to do in this case.”

Bennett requested a change from SF-3-H to LO-MU-H, although he noted he could have requested the GO zoning under some certain circumstances. The property does back up to a church parking lot on one side and single-family on another.

In other words, neighbors would see little to no difference from the street curb. The house still would contribute to the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

Ben Schotz represented the Judges Hill Neighborhood Association. While the Beal daughters may have viewed the property as one of a dozen or so converted houses on West Avenue, the Judges Hill Neighborhood viewed the conversion as encroachment. Every house taken away from Judges Hill takes away from the fabric of downtown’s only surviving neighborhood, Schotz said.

“The recent investments in residential homes  – I can think of at least $10 million on 12 projects –- are a testament to the single-family homes in Judges Hill that have created the residential character of the neighborhood,” Schotz said. “We are the last neighborhood of a residential character in downtown Austin. This is who we are. We don’t want to live on a Hollywood set.”

The Judges Hill residents also have raised the concern, last night and at the commission meetings, that residential use has the advantage of round-the-clock attention ownership gives a home. A homeowner can give attention to the home around the clock. A business owner could depart at 5pm.

What turned the tide was discussion of the parking spaces necessary for the home if it was converted to a business. Questioned by Council members, Director Greg Guernsey said parking could be a consideration in a Council zoning decision.

If the home at 1503 West Ave. were fully converted to office, it would require 5 parking spaces, Guernsey said. The number of required parking spaces would be on a sliding scale, one that could be reduced if the office space in the house was reduced in favor of living space.

The parking space issue was enough to sway Council, which made quick work of a vote to oppose the zoning change. Council Member Bill Spelman made the motion to deny the request, supported by Council Member Laura Morrison.

“I also want to speak to this being a blended street,” Morrison said. “It’s a blended street, but I’m not willing to accept the assumption that we’re going to have to transition to commercial. I think there’s a lot that needs to be taken into consideration, and not just talking about structures with LO zoning. We need to talk about residential structures being at risk because of parking issues.”

The final vote was 4-3 to deny the zoning change, with Council Members Randi Shade, Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole voting against the motion.

After the meeting, the point was raised in the foyer that the property did not require a zoning change at all if an owner wanted to conduct a business. A home-based business is an acceptable use of a home, if the homeowner does not post signs, does not advertise and significantly curtails trips.

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