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Planning Commission votes again to deny landmark status for home

Monday, September 20, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

A City Council decision to send a controversial application for demolition back to the Planning Commission did not result in a different recommendation this week than it did last summer. The commission again sided with the property’s owners and city staff, voting to deny the Callan-Boswell House landmark status.


Some neighbors in the Grooms Addition of the North University Neighborhood Association are intent on the creation of a local historic district, and they have rallied to block the demolition of the small working-class cottage.


However, Eugene Sepulveda of the North University Neighborhood Association has written to the Council saying, “Our association is against historical designation; our executive committee has approved the stand against, despite statements to the contrary by disgruntled neighbors.”


UPDATE: Sepulveda sent us a note about this story after it had run. He said his previous comments to the Council indicating that the association and its executive committee had approved a stand against historic zoning were incorrect.


Supporters considered a last-minute letter from the Texas Historical Commission, presented at Council on August 26, to affirm their research methods and findings on the cottage that are contrary to city staff and pointed to the house’s potential eligibility for national register district designation. They requested another hearing before the Planning Commission.


Hence, even though the case had a combined eight hearings before multiple commissions, Council remanded the Callan-Boswell back to Planning Commission to consider the new information.


Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, however, hadn’t changed his mind on giving the house landmark status – he remained against it. He applauded the dogged work of neighbors to fill in the house’s gaps but noted that any house with something less than a full and complete history should not be landmarked.


“This simply is not the house to landmark if we’re looking to landmark houses that represent the working class and the under-represented classes in Austin society,” Sadowsky said. “The reason is that we simply don’t know enough about it. We can’t base a landmark decision on speculation this might be the house, even if we don’t know who lived there. It’s just not something we need to do.”


Players and testimony was roughly the same as it has been in past hearings, with supporters insisting that new evidence only strengthened the case for the house and its association to the landmarked Finch-Krueger House next door. Owners, on the other hand, argued the house’s ties were tenuous.


The final vote was roughly the same as it was the first time around, 5-4, with Commissioner Jay Reddy moving staff recommendation against historic designation on the house. Those who opposed the staff recommendation and supported a historic designation were Commissioners Danette Chimenti, Kathryne Tovo, Saundra Kirk and Mandy Dealey.


“Ultimately, I think our charge is to decide on some fairly straightforward criteria,” said Reddy, noting that neighborhood preservation was near and dear to his heart. “To me this doesn’t rise to meeting all the criteria that we need it to meet.”


Chimenti, stating why she opposed the motion, said it would be a shame to lose an opportunity to protect a small modest house for a change and preserve socio-economic diversity of the neighborhood.


“I would not be so inclined to vote for historic zoning against the owner’s wishes if this had been a not-so-modest house,” Chimenti said. ”I think the fact that is appealing to me is that it is a modest house, and that opportunity to protect that.”


Tovo supported Chimenti, saying it was a reasonable assumption, given the affirmation of the research, that the house had been on the property, uninterrupted. Like the other men on the panel, Commissioner Dave Anderson voted for the motion because he was convinced the evidence was not definitive.


Commissioner Saundra Kirk, teetering between the two sides, said she was inclined to save the house, was less definitive about its history and considered the Texas Historic Commission’s letter to be an affirmation of research methodology and not necessarily supporting historic claims.


Kirk also acknowledged she was not convinced, unlike her colleagues who claimed a market for smaller working-class homes, that keeping the house in its current state was not a hardship on its owners.


Sadowsky provided a rough thumbnail of the history of the cottage that could be traced by Sandborne maps and city directories. The house appeared on the lot in 1921. There are signs that a house of a similar design was still on the lot, with occupants, between 1935 and 1940. Then no building shows up in the Sanborn maps for five years, before a house reappears on the lot, one that does not bear the characteristics of the 1935 house. Sadowksy is fairly certainly that house, moved to the site in 1945, is the same one sitting there today.


Even with the house, minus its history, pinned down to 1945 on the lot at 408 E 33rd St, its architecture and occupants did not rise to the level of landmark, although neighbors insisted there was a need to landmark working-class structures, and that this house was a contributing structure to the historic district that was being compiled by the residents of the Grooms Addition.


Commissioners Tovo and Chimenti did struggle mightily to establish the neighborhood’s case. Tovo pointed out, and Sadowsky agreed, that the Sandborne maps had errors, although Sadowsky had to add that errors on something like a porch dimension were rare.


Tovo laid out an argument that the house might have appeared in city directories for five year because it was vacant and only reappeared when it was renovated and occupied. Sadowsky said it was possible but impossible to know conclusively given the limited information. Most vacant houses are listed as “vacant” in the city directory.


Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez pressed Sadowsky. Was Sadowsky suggesting that the lot was empty for five years before a house was moved onto the lot by 1945? Sadowsky said he could not make an assumption conclusively. He could only recount when the house and occupants were recorded.


In the discussion with Chimenti, Sadowsky noted that eligibility for designation in the National Register of Historic Places might seem important but the bar for eligibility was much lower than it would be for designation.


The case goes back to Council for another vote. Historic designation, over the owners’ objections, will require a super-majority vote. That seems unlikely, since only four Council members—Chris Riley, Sheryl Cole, Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman—voted to send the case back to the Planning Commission.

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