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Debate provides insight into Council views on historic zoning

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

As staff continues to prepare recommendations that would alter the city’s historic zoning ordinance, public hearings on three houses up for landmark consideration last Thursday gave onlookers a glimpse of what individual Council members might be looking for when those recommendations come in.


The first property up for consideration was the Olson-Foster House, a 1934 Tudor Revival located at 3808 Avenue H in Hyde Park. According to Steve Sadowsky, the city’s historic preservation officer, the home was once owned by a prominent Swedish-American family (the Olsons) and then a prominent Lebanese-American family (the Fosters).


Bad timing may have doomed the owner’s application, however. Not two hours after considering the Olson-Foster House, Council approved the Hyde Park Historic District, effectively making Olson-Foster a historic property anyway, just with slightly different benefits and responsibilities. Several Council members mentioned this during their discussion of the homeowner’s application.


Still, two Council members, Laura Morrison and Chris Riley, voted in favor of rezoning. Morrison made a motion to approve the application based on the fact that the home was once a social center for the city’s Lebanese-American community and because it is a “specific example” of a type of architecture not commonly seen in the city.


“(Approving landmark status) is going to ensure a higher degree of preserving the architecture,” Morrison said.


Riley, meanwhile, argued that to judge the Olson-Foster House based on an as-yet-nonexistent historic district would be unfair to the property’s owner.


“We don’t currently have a historic district,” Riley said. “We do have a set of rules and we have a recommendation from both the landmark commission and the Planning Commission and staff, and out of respect for that existing system that we have and the efforts that the owner has expended on this historic asset, I’m going to support this.”


The application was denied, however, by a vote of 2-4, with Morrison and Riley voting for and Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez, and Council members Sheryl Cole and Randi Shade voting against. Council Member Bill Spelman had recused himself because he lives in Hyde Park.


Speaking for the “nays,” Shade said, “There are people all over the city who are putting in work on older homes, and I think if the significance of the (historic) association and the architecture isn’t great enough, it’s hard to make a case citywide for the special designation.”


The two other properties on Council’s agenda fared better.


The Paul J. Thompson House, a 1937 Colonial Revival, won near-unanimous Council approval based primarily on the historical significance of the home’s original owners, Paul and Bess Thompson. According to Sadowsky, Thompson, a professor, was “instrumental in the re-establishment of the department of journalism at the University of Texas … and under his guidance and leadership the department became a school of journalism.” Thompson also helped found the school’s student newspaper, The Daily Texan.


That was enough for Spelman, himself a UT professor. He made a motion to approve the owner’s application, saying, “We’ve seen a lot of cases from this part of town, and they are all nice houses … some of them I voted for, some of them I voted against for any historic property designation.


“This one I would like to vote for, and the big difference between this house and other houses that I voted against is the historic significance of the person who was its first owner. Paul Thompson took a non-department of journalism, created it from scratch, and turned it into a school that is one of the finest schools of journalism in the country … we ought to honor that by giving historic significance to this particular house.”


His motion passed on a vote of 6-1, with Shade the lone dissenting voice.


The third and final historic landmark case of the day was the Bouldin-Blum House on West Mary Street. Sadowsky told Council members that the home, a Victorian Vernacular—“a rare surviving example”—had fallen into disrepair by 1998 and was threatened with demolition. An agreement between the property owners and the Historic Landmark Commission resulted in the house being moved to its present location and restored.


Leffingwell was the first to come out in favor of the application, though he was quick to point out that his support wasn’t based entirely on the fact that the property is located in the neighborhood where he grew up. Rather, the mayor said, “This is the type of house that is really in danger of being demolished. This is the purpose of the (historic landmark) program to me: Take a house that is kind of marginal and has historic value, that we want to see kept, but financially it’s not a viable proposition without a historic designation program.”

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