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Landmark Commission has little power over some demolition permits

Wednesday, December 1, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The case of 711 Brownlee Circle at the most recent Historic Landmark Commission was somewhat different from the board’s usual fare.


The review of a demolition permit for a structure in a National Register Historic District allows the commission to comment on a case, but it cannot take a vote, unless it is to delay a case because of a lack of sufficient information. So, with the blessing of city staff, the demolition will be allowed.


Owners of 711 Brownlee Circle want to strip the home, a non-contributing structure in the West Line Historic District, down to the studs and expand the property both up and back, including a roof deck at the rear of the property. West Line is one of 15 national historic districts in Austin, sandwiched between Clarksville and Old West Austin.


Architect Martin Barrera had the support of neighbors – if not local preservationists — in his attempt to match the design guideline set out for the historic district. The home, actually zoned for multi-family in the midst of a single-family neighborhood, was one of the newer ones, built in the early 1950s.


And, as Barrera pointed out, the house was among a pocket of non-contributing structures. Old West Austin Neighborhood Vice Chair Linda MacNeilage, on the other hand, described it as a house that backed right up to some of the area’s most historic homes.


In his presentation, Barrera outlined some of the West Line design standards he thought the new design of the larger 711 Brownlee Circle captured: a garage pushed to the back of the property; no additional curb cut or poured concrete on the driveway; windows on the yard and porch promoted openness; and the streetscape would be preserved and enhanced.


Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, in his remarks, did express some reservations that the two-story reconstruction would not match many of the low-slung houses in the overall neighborhood.


“The vast majority of houses are one story,” Sadowsky said. “There is a two-story across the street that is less than 10 years old, and a two-story brick house of very modern construction down the street that I’m not sure whether is finished yet. Given the transformation from one story to two story, and this being the crest of the hill, this would have a pretty predominant location.”


Overall, though, Sadowsky recommended the release of the permit, noting that existing materials from the house will be blended into the new construction and that the use of limestone and siding, plus a metal roof, was consistent with the design of other newer homes in the neighborhood.


MacNeilage lamented the absence of Commissioner Terri Myers, a local preservationist, from the meeting and noted it had been a number of years since the national register district application for West Line District had been submitted. Everyone had aged. The house had aged. It easily could be argued that it now was a relevant contributing structure.


The house, unlike others in the neighborhood, also had been well preserved. The structure had been renovated as recently as 1985, with no major alterations.


Barrera, in his rebuttal speech, did cite the closest neighbors, by name, and their verbal support for the project. According to Barrera, tenants next door were concerned that their driveway not be blocked but most approved of the construction, saying it would blend and was similar to other new houses.


At the time of comments, Chair Laurie Limbacher did follow up on MacNeilage’s concerns about the relevance of the house and its age. She asked Sadowsky to clarify how years passing would bolster an argument for relevance.


“The context of the district is defined in the nomination, right?” Limbacher asked. “I see this to be more of a stylistic issue than a time issue, although I don’t recall the particulars of this nomination.”


The house, Sadowsky agreed, was one of the newer houses in the district, but that age alone was not enough to tip the scale of contributing or non-contributing. In such a case, it would be more appropriate to resurvey every house in the district for relevance, rather than determining a single structure was suddenly contributing because it was threatened with demolition.

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