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Panel delays demolition of East Austin house

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Swayed by the emotional pleas of neighbors, the Historic Landmark Commission last week voted unanimously to delay demolition of an East Austin home, giving it a 75-day reprieve.


The house, built in 1917, is located at 2300 Holly Street, just west of the decommissioned Holly Street power plant. The commissioners asked city staff to continue researching whether the house should be granted historic designation, though staffers declined to recommend the designation. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the house’s poor condition, additions to the rear, common architectural style and lack of significant history all indicated that the house was not a good candidate for individual historic designation.


Rob Clinchard spoke in favor of the demolition on behalf of his brother, who purchased the house two months ago. He explained that they planned to return to the original platting of the land, which would divide the property into four lots once the house is removed. Clinchard told the commission he had no plans to change the SF-3 zoning of the lots, but whoever bought the property would ultimately determine what was built.


Louis Cerda, vice president of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association, told the commission that claims the house was unfit to live in were “disrespectful,” noting that it was inhabited less than two months ago, and even hosted a wedding recently. He convinced the commissioners to close their eyes and imagine the neighborhood gone, and the cold comfort a file in an archive would provide as a replacement for such lost houses.


“If this was Avenue H, it would not happen. If it was Barton Springs, it definitely wouldn’t happen. It’s a jewel and should stay there and be kept up,” said Cerda.


Clinchard disagreed, countering that while the house was recently occupied, it was also in such bad shape that they had deemed it “not rentable.”  


“We told the individuals that you can live here rent-free until September 1, and they took us up on it,” Clinchard said.


But neighbors spoke against tearing down the house.


Phil Thomas, a recent transplant to the neighborhood who restored his nearby Mildred Street house, spoke against the demolition, saying keeping it would help preserve the identity of East Austin.


“The city is changing, and East Austin is ground zero for profiteers and land speculators,” Thomas said. “In the feeding frenzy, we are demolishing the tangible evidence of local history. We are in danger of creating a congested, soulless, urban mess if we’re not careful. It’s important to slow down, to pause, to see what we’re about to destroy forever.”


Alexander Rodriguez, who has lived in the Holly Street neighborhood for 54 years, spoke to the commission about increased gentrification, saying that he was there “to fight for memories.”


“This neighborhood has been through a lot,” said Rodriguez. “It’s memories that he’s trying to get rid of.”


The Historic Landmark Commission voted 5-0 to initiate historic zoning, which will delay the demolition for 75 days. (Commissioners Meghan Kleon and Dan Leary were absent.) The commissioners also directed the staff to continue to research the house’s potential for individual landmark designation and to take into account the sketchy recorded histories of the area and the advanced age of many of the neighbors. The commission encouraged staff to explore other routes of information gathering, including speaking to interested neighbors and visiting the area during the research period.


Clinchard asked the commission to base their decision on codified criteria, not on “other factors, which are tempting, but just not written in code or the rules.”


“From a building standpoint, there’s very little redeeming qualities to this house. But as far as the memories go, there may be a lot of those,” Clinchard said.

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