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Stalemate continues over historic zoning for Bradford-Nohra House

Friday, January 14, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The long, drawn out controversy over the historic status of a Hyde Park home continues.


The Austin City Council voted last night to approve historic zoning for the Bradford-Nohra house on first reading by a 4-3 vote. That tally, which found Council Member Randi Shade, Mayor Lee Leffingwell, and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez against the idea, appears likely to stand as the vote moves through the second and third readings.


However, because the home’s current owners are opposed to the zoning change, it would take the consent of six council members to zone the home historic. This puts the likely failure of that change at least two weeks away.


Helen Nohra currently owns the house, which sits at the corner of 43rd Street and Avenue G. Her family has been fighting to demolish the property—which they contend would cost more than $1 million to bring up to city code–for nearly three years. The Hyde Park Neighborhood Association has opposed the demolition permit, insisting that the home meets the criteria laid out for historic zoning.


The debate over it all has been contentious. And though yesterday’s hearing featured tones of measured civility, that fact lurked in the background.


Hyde Park resident and longtime historic preservationist Karen McGraw argued for the importance of historic preservation in her neighborhood. “(Of) all the 37 years that I have been in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, the most number one important item and activity of the Neighborhood Association has been saving the historic buildings of Hyde Park,” she said.


She and her neighbors then rattled off testimony to illustrate the historic value of the Bradford-Nohra house. They came armed with statements from such architectural experts as Eugene George and Larry Speck. They read a letter from Lucy Baines Johnson that attempted to illustrate the historical importance of the house’s former owner, Dewey Bradford.


Architect Emily Little reminded the Council that she had come up with a restoration plan for the home that, she said, she couldn’t “imagine…would be over $500,000.”


The Nohra family disputed all of it. Their representative—and cousin—attorney Jimmy Nassour said that “the cost to repair the house…is $1,023,000.” He noted that that figure was only the amount to “repair and bring (the house) to code” and “not to restore it to the condition necessary to…bring it to historic zoning.”


As for the historic value of the house, Nassour said that the “National Register shows it to be non-contributing.” He added that “the numerous alterations and additions over the years” had taken away its historic nature.


Shade motion’s to deny historic zoning for the home came with a preamble. “This has been, by far, the most challenging zoning case that I’ve ever been involved in,” she said.


“I would love to see some portion of this house preserved,” she continued later. “I would love to see (the Nohra’s) lot be all it can be.”


Shade then reminded her colleagues that any new construction begun by the Nohra family would have to meet the standards set up in the new Hyde Park Local Historic District, and said that she would support city staff in their assessment that the house did not meet historic standards.


Council Member Laura Morrison disagreed. “We really need to focus in on the criteria here,” she said. “I believe that with the attention that it has gotten from a significant number of professionals…that does sway me.”


Morrison and Council Members Bill Spelman, Chris Riley, and Sheryl Cole all signaled their intent to vote for historic zoning. Cole then made a motion to pass the measure on all three readings. With a supermajority of the Council needed to approve that on three readings, it was only able to squeak through on a 4-3, first reading vote.

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