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City to demolish historic East Austin homes in order to save them

Monday, October 31, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The city has come up with a compromise for the controversial proposed demolition of several historic East Austin homes.


The houses, located in the Olive-Juniper neighborhood, have sat in disrepair for many years. Neighbors expressed shock at their potential demolition earlier this year, as they were considered to be contributing structures to the proposed East Austin Historic District.


The city now has a plan to save the houses.


Last week, the Historic Landmark Commission gave its blessing to starting the process of demolition on houses at 1164 Curve Street, 1108 Olive Street, and 905 Olive Street – but the demolition will be done with the intent of reconstructing the houses using whatever original materials can be salvaged.


“It’s in effect a demolition, but we’re going to deconstruct and reconstruct. That’s the new catchphrase that I feel very happy to use tonight,” said project architect Tom Hatch. “I think we are going to reuse as much material as possible, but it’s going to be a new house.”


The house at 905 Olive Street is going to be moved to the identical, also-threatened 907 Olive Street. The plan is to conjoin the houses in the rear, to make one house, but leave the appearance of the front relatively the same. The rear of each house, which Hatch described as a “sad addition” will be demolished.


The Curve Street house will undergo a similar process. Hatch plans to add a small, unobtrusive addition to the rear of the house.


“Our goal is to create livable homes in this neighborhood and the existing structures. The primary structures are not adequate in and of themselves to be a home,” said Hatch.


Once renovated, the houses, all owned by the Austin Housing Financing Corporation, will become part of the city’s affordable housing stock.


Neighbors who fought plans for demolition remain cautiously optimistic about the city’s plans.


“It’s not that we are in opposition absolutely, it’s just that we need to be very careful,” said Stan Strickland, president of the Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association.


“We are excited about the developments we’ve seen come forth by Mr. Hatch. What’s at stake here is a potential historic district, and that’s the rest of the story,” said Strickland. He told the commission that the number of contributing properties in the district has dwindled over the years due to demolition and neglect, and the remaining houses are part of a limited number.


“We need to be very careful with regards to what is demolished versus what is dismantled, and I’m not sure what the difference is. So if there is any distinguishing that you can do here, it would be helpful in this situation,” said Strickland, who also expressed concern that moving the houses could also impact their status.


“We’re talking about two houses moving a little bit in this proposed historic district,” said Commissioner Terri Myers. “Each project is considered on its own merits, but in my opinion with these moves, it will still be eligible for the national register.”


As for the local historic district, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that each district makes its own determination as to whether or not houses that have been moved can qualify as contributing structures.


Deanne Johnson, a member of the Central East Austin Neighborhood Association, thanked staff for bringing Hatch into the project and meeting with the neighborhood about the plan, calling it a “good faith effort to work with us.” She also asked that demolition be stalled until a historic district was initiated.


Sadowsky told the commission that they planned to include detailed descriptions of the existing house in the demolition documentation package so that plans can be developed in strict accordance with what is there right now.


He advised against delaying the demolition given the current fragile state of the houses.


The commission voted to release demolition permits for 1108 Olive Street on consent, and 1164 Curve Street and 905 Olive Street 6-1, with Commissioner Joe Arriaga voting against.

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