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Despite plans to change program, Council OKs historic zoning cases

Tuesday, November 9, 2010 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite moves to slow the drain on the city’s tax revenues by limiting the number of historic home designations, the Council unanimously voted last week to add two more to that roster, and began the process of rezoning a third.


The City Council granted the Matsen House and the McClendon-Kozmetsky House family-resident landmark status. The houses sit side-by-side in the Judges’ Hill Neighborhood, just north of downtown.


Though the cases raised no public controversy, Council Members Chris Riley and Randi Shade expressed continuing concern about the tax abatement accompanying the designation. Riley referenced “ongoing discussions about the benefits that are afforded to historic landmark properties.” He warned that cases now being considered would be subject to whatever those modifications may be, and said, “There are generous benefits offered now, but they may be subject to change at some point in the not-too-distant future.”


Council, in response to a record number of homeowners applying for and receiving historic zoning status, voted Aug. 19 to temporarily limit the number of properties the Historic Landmark Commission would consider to three a month.


A subcommittee of the landmark commission is studying changes to the ordinance granting abatements but seems unlikely to come up with a recommendation before the final City Council meeting of the year, which is scheduled for Dec. 16. Council will likely extend the deadline for making those recommendations for 30-60 days.


Council approved the historic designation for the Matsen House on a vote of 6-0, with Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez off the dais. The house, located at 1800 San Gabriel Street, was heralded by Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky as a good representation of the International Style in Austin, where the architectural style has little presence.


Previously, he said, there were no protected examples of the International Style in Austin.


The McClendon-Kozmetsy House is a Mid-Century Modernist home. The property, which was built in 1955 for Judge James W. McClendon and his wife, Annie Watt McClendon, is located at 1001 W. 17th Street. George and Ronya Kozmetsky later purchased the house.  Kozmetsky was dean of the University of Texas’ Graduate School of Business from 1966 to 1982. The vote in favor of rezoning was 5-0, with the mayor pro tem and Council Member Bill Spelman off the dais.


Speaking on behalf of the preservation of her family home, Megan Matsen Meisenbach stated that her “neighborhood has felt increasingly threatened and didn’t feel like we were going to become a residential neighborhood for very long, and this spurred to do the work.”


She noted that neighbors were attempting to zone their lots as General Office and there was currently an effort underway to rezone the property bordering the Matsen House multifamily. All of this contributed to her feeling “not secure, so not specifically for my house, but what’s around it.”


Jay Tassin, who is the current owner of the McClendon-Kozmetsky House, echoed her concerns, and noted the considerable expense involved in maintaining a historic home properly. “If we really wanted to cash out, we wouldn’t do it by preserving our homes,” he said. He worried that “support for historic preservation is on the wane,” but the neighborhood was ready to move forward on a local historic district.


Sadowsky acknowledged that “there is a movement in the Judges’ Hill area to put a local historic district nomination together” and there has been “quite a bit of activity and discussion” surrounding such a proposal.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell later remarked that there had been such an effort underway for at least two years. “If there is any area of town that is more deserving of a historic district, or worth preserving as a historic district, it’s Judges’ Hill.”


Council also approved on first reading a historic designation for the Warner Stewart House, located at 1015 Gaston Avenue. Sadowsky compared the house to the family home Tara in “Gone with the Wind.”

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