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Commission action revives fight over Bradford-Nohra house

Thursday, September 30, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The Historic Landmark Commission has again voted to initiate historic zoning for a Hyde Park home over the wishes of its owners. The building, known to various city commissions as the Bradford-Nohra house, has been at the center of a contentious debate over property rights for more than two years.


The hearing brought out a host of passionate Hyde Park residents, who lingered until well after 11pm to express their feelings on the matter. On one side, a familiar set of Hyde Park faces, including local attorney and UT professor Amon Burton and architect Karen McGraw, argued for the preservation of the home. On the other, the Nohra family, including their representative attorney Jimmy Nassour — whose aunt still lives in the home — battled for the right to demolish the property.


In the middle sit the related questions of just how historic a home should be for it to qualify for protection and, even if it does, to what extent the city can reach over the objections of that building’s owners.


For his part, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky doesn’t believe that the Bradford-Nohra house, which sits at the corner of Avenue G and 43rd Street, warrants protection. “Staff’s recommendation is to demolish the house,” he said.


“Staff understands very well the importance of this house to the Hyde Park neighborhood … however, one of the tests … of whether a house should be listed in the national register or has historical significance is does it maintain its historic appearance,” he added. “That’s one of our criteria for designation as a landmark as well. Staff believes … that this house has lost its historic appearance.”


As for the connection to Dewey Bradford, Nassour argued that the former paint magnate, art collector, and LBJ pal hadn’t spent the right years at the house. “Without addressing the prominence of Mr. Bradford,” he said, “the home he lived in during the period of his life (during which) the neighborhood suggests he became prominent was on Stratford Drive, not on Avenue G.”


But Hyde Park residents rose, one after another, to counter their arguments. Wanda Penn, for one, claimed that at least some of the work on the house had been done while that family was still living in it. “I think in one of the old photos there is a picture of Dewey and his wife standing on the upstairs, right at the railing of that (structure),” she said, “so that may put that back a little bit farther than we were thinking that it was, at least tonight.”


The city has been down this road before. In the spring of 2009, the house wound its way through the Historic Landmark and Planning commissions after the former initiated a historic zoning case for the property. After an initial vote to grant historic zoning at Council, a lawsuit filed by the Nohras stopped any further action.


Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd then discovered that the Historic Landmark Commission vote had lacked the appropriate numbers to protect the home, and the family was granted a demolition permit. That brought on more legal action and, in July, District Court Judge Rhonda Hurley effectively reset the entire process. That brought the Nohras and Hyde Park back to begin it all again.


Along the way Council Member Randi Shade has tried to broker some kind of deal between Hyde Park and the Nohra family. That effort has been unsuccessful thus far.


The Nohras contend that their home is valued at just over $100,000, a number that they say continues to drop. A renovation that would bring the place up to code would cost, according to the family, more than $1 million.


The family would rather demolish the current structure and build two sets of properties. They plan to sell one set to finance the project.


This all comes against the backdrop of a greater discussion over the role of historic preservation in Austin. This summer, the City Council passed an ordinance restricting the number of cases that the Landmark Commission can initiate on its own. That legislation was passed on the heels of a December 2009 meeting where the Council saw 25 historic zoning cases.


Historic zoning brings benefits to homeowners by way of tax breaks. In so doing, it subtracts from local property tax rolls.


After testimony, landmark commissioners found there to be enough evidence to warrant yet another look and sent Sadowsky back to do more research. The vote was 6-0. That sets the case up for another appearance before the commission next month.


After the hearing Nassour told In Fact Daily that the ruling wasn’t a surprise. “This commission is … a kangaroo court,” he said. “They don’t rely on facts; they rely on the sentiments of the vocal minority of some of these neighborhoods that really, sometimes, are nothing more than bully litigants.”


He added that he was concerned for his aunt. “(She) is 97 years old and our hope was to have her in a new home by now instead of living in the current conditions of the house, which are not favorable,” he said.


Indications are that the Nohras’ luck could change when their case reaches City Council again. Nassour said that his family would follow the process.

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