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Despite opposition, panel seeks historic zoning for frat house

Thursday, August 30, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite overwhelming public support for demolition, the Historic Landmark Commission held strong, voting unanimously to recommend historic zoning for the West Campus Leroy Brown House over the objections of the owners.


People filled Council chambers during the commission’s meeting on Monday night, with about 100 people showing up to support the demolition and more than 650 people signing a petition in support.


No one spoke in opposition to the demolition of the house at 2707 Hemphill Park, which is owned by the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. The fraternity originally sold the land to the Brown family in 1914 and bought it back in 1995.


The commission voted 4-0 to recommend historic zoning, with Vice Chair John Rosato recused. Commissioners Meghan Kleon and Dan Leary were absent.


The unanimous vote was required to recommend historic zoning over the property owner’s objections, a move that requires a supermajority with a full commission, though four votes were sufficient with Rosato’s recusal.


“We simply make a recommendation,” said Chair Laurie Limbacher. “It is carried on to the Planning Commission and on to Council. They have the harder job because they have to take into account all of the issues associated with this. We have the easier job. We just have to consider potential historic significance.”


City staffers found the house did meet criteria for historic designation, saying the Dutch-Colonial revival architectural style with parapets was very rare in Austin, and the historical association with UT Professor Leroy Brown warranted preservation. Attorney John Donisi, representing the fraternity, disagreed, saying that staff had overblown Brown’s accomplishments. He also argued that several other houses of the same style had been preserved previously in Austin. Donisi is a member of the Winstead firm and is a former president of the Heritage Society of Austin.


Donisi also offered a compromise. He said that if the commission did not recommend historic zoning and released the demolition permit, the fraternity would not take any action for 60 days, during which time they would discuss the possibility of relocating the structure. Donisi said that if an appropriate site was located, they would return to the commission, relinquish the demolition permit and reapply for a relocation permit.


Donisi said that if no suitable location was found, they would voluntarily return to the commission for comments on the new addition, and place a marker on the site commemorating Brown.


The brick Dutch colonial revival house was built in 1915 for UT Physics Professor S. Leroy and Josephine Brown, who lived there until their deaths. Brown is perhaps best known for establishing the original KUT radio station, which in 1915 began broadcasting weather and crop reports from the physics lab on the UT campus; during World War I, the university operated Brown’s equipment to broadcast reports using the call letters KUT.


The fraternity has argued that their proposed new building will provide much-needed relief for its main “Buen Retiro” chapter house, and give students places to study and hold events.


Plans for the 20,000-square-foot structure that would replace the Brown house include space for 26 dorm rooms for fraternity members, a housemother suite, a great room, study halls and a reception space. Development will also include 7,000 square feet of outdoor deck and two levels of underground parking.


Keeping the existing structure would reduce the habitable square footage of the addition by more than 30 percent, and “make the project somewhat moot,” according to Donisi, who explained that potential parking would be especially limited.


Since the last meeting, the Texas Historical Commission issued a letter of approval for the addition, highlighting their appreciation that the new facility would lessen the intensity of the current use of Buen Retiro, which has been a registered Texas Historic Landmark since the fraternity sought historic designation in 1972.


The project also won the support of the North University Neighborhood Association (NUNA).


Mary Ingle, a neighbor of the fraternity house and member of NUNA, urged the commission to consider letting the property owners redevelop the property, saying that they had known about the proposed development since 2004 and it was consistent with the neighborhood plan.


“We feel like the benefits from this proposed structure outweigh anything else,” said Ingle. “It will mitigate parking, with two levels of underground parking. Also, there will be a party space inside, and that’s very, very important for those of us that live in the neighborhood.


The building there is kind of cute, but it would be really great if it could be relocated,” said Ingle.


The case will continue to the Planning Commission next before heading to City Council for a final decision.

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