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Council to consider the city’s largest-ever historic district

Thursday, August 19, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The implications of the proposed Castle Hill Historic District on its commercial neighbors, developer Perry Lorenz joked yesterday, were “clear as mud,” although city staff did attempt to ease the apprehension among property owners and developers at the West End Alliance Association (WEAA) meeting.


Lorenz, who leads the WEAA, brought in Planning Manager Jerry Rusthoven to discuss the Castle Hill district with WEAA only a day before it hits first, and possibly second, reading at Council. Everyone, including Rusthoven, agreed it was uncharted territory for the city, best approached with some caution.


The Castle Hill district stretches from 6th to 12th streets and from Blanco to Baylor.


When Council calls up the Castle Hill Historic District on its agenda this afternoon, it will be a first. Yes, the city does have one approved local historic district, on Hartman Street, but it’s so small it’s almost insignificant. At barely a block in length, it has yet to trigger a zoning case.


Castle Hill, on the other hand, would encompass 178 structures, including 16 historic landmarks and 116 contributing properties. It encompasses 39 acres, including homes, a firehouse, and even an apartment complex, according to the city.


The proposal is expected to go forward without opposition, according to neighborhood leaders at yesterday’s meeting.


What has bothered WEAA members, to some extent, is how supporters have gone through the rezoning process, beginning with agitated homeowners and little input from outside stakeholders. Homeowners signed the petition to approve the creation of the district long before the specifics of design standards were discussed, said WEAA Member Kevin Lewis. Few people understand the full process.


“You don’t know what the design standards will be like when you sign ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a petition,” said Lewis. “It’s like signing a blank check.”


The Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, almost evenly split over the Castle Hill issue, has taken no stand on the district. Business owners, including WEAA members, clearly still had questions.


Developers of surrounding property, and even owners of non-contributing structures within the proposed district, are concerned about the implications of Council’s approval, especially in light of the possibility of the historic district expanding to additional surrounding property in coming years.


At this point, of course, anything older than 1960 could be considered a candidate for historic zoning, dependent upon the potential historical significance of the property.


That has surrounding owners both agitated and skeptical.


Castle Hill can be traced to a single plat of downtown, sometimes referred to as Division Z. Buildings within the district range in age from roughly 50 to 140 years. Bungalows and cottages dominate the area, although some structures are associated with the Texas Military Institute.


Castle Hill is expected to have more extensive design standards than local historic districts in either Hyde Park or Travis Heights, both currently in the city’s pipeline. That’s because Hyde Park and Travis Heights are already city neighborhood conservation combining districts, or NCCDs, which set out their own stringent development standards. Therefore, the changes are both more extensive and more scrutinized by commercial neighbors.


The intention is not to create a neighborhood that makes all new construction look like older buildings, Rusthoven said. Instead, the intention of a local historic district would be the creation of a neighborhood with setbacks, height limits, garage placement, and design standards, among other things, that would make homes, both old and new, look compatible.


“We do not want you to build a new version that tries to look like an old version,” Rusthoven said.


Rusthoven, accompanied by a high school senior on a job shadow day, said local historic districts were created to provide consistent design standards, avoid the case-by-case attempts by neighborhoods to zone buildings historic, and prevent the teardowns so popular during the real estate boom.


A local historic district designation, Rusthoven said, allows a neighborhood to avoid the “save our neighborhood” tug of war confrontations between neighborhoods and homeowners and to set out design standards that can preserve the character of a neighborhood. The application process, however, has been overwhelming to many neighborhoods, with only a handful completing applications.


Castle Hill is scheduled for an afternoon hearing. Council will also consider monthly limits on historic zoning cases on today’s agenda.

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