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Panel OKs historic zoning for high-rise building adjacent to Capitol

Wednesday, September 26, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

A unanimous move by the Historic Landmark Commission to initiate historic zoning for the Westgate Tower in downtown Austin is already stirring up controversy.


On Monday, the commission voted 5-0 to approve historic zoning for the 46-year-old building at 1122 Colorado Street. Chair Laurie Limbacher and Commissioner Terri Myers were absent.


The 25-story building is a mix of residential condominiums and commercially owned units, including numerous condos owned by members of the Texas Legislature, trade groups and other movers and shakers wanting easy access to the state Capitol, just steps away.


According to Travis County records, the 104 units range in value from $110,482 to $2.1 million.


Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that questions about abatement would be decided on a per-condo basis. He said the Westgate Condominium Association had brought forward the request after years of attempts to modify the building. The building was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places and has Texas Historic Landmark status.


Ann Dolce, a director of the Westgate Condominium Association, said that throughout her 11-year board tenure she had seen many threats to the exterior of the building. She said the landmark designation would be a major tool to retain the design and integrity of the building.


Dolce cited as threats property owners’ requests to tint windows, install satellite dishes, enclose terraces and remove brick screening. She singled out the board’s greatest concern– attempts by owners to purchase numerous units to obtain control and make decisions about the building.


The city and county provide property tax abatements of up to $2,500 per year for residential properties designated as “historic.” Austin Independent School District caps tax credits at $3,500 for newly designated historic properties.


Opposing the historic designation, local developer Rick Hardin identified the case as “the poster child illustration of a program run amok,” in a widely distributed email received by In Fact Daily on Tuesday. Hardin wrote that the case was “All about tax breaks. Nothing to do with historic preservation. No risk that this building would EVER be demolished.”


“(Westgate) is a high rise condo that would not be allowed to be built today at this scale, in this location,” Hardin continued. “This building has dozens upon dozens of high end residential (and some commercial) condos. The notion that a consensus of all of these owners (and their lenders) could EVER occur to consent to a demolition is ludicrous.”


The structure, which was completed in 1966, is the only Austin building by the late architect Edward Durell Stone, famous for his “new formalist” buildings, such as Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.


The Westgate Tower also has a unique history all its own.


“This building is the reason for the Capitol view corridors, which has a very long-lasting effect on development in Austin,” said the city’s Sadowsky. “(It’s) something they may not be that proud of, but still, it falls into those historical associations with the history of the city.”


State Capitol View Corridors were established in 1983 to preserve existing views of the Texas Capitol. At the time, the Westgate Tower was cited as an example of a building that competed with the view of the Capitol building. Its construction in the 1960s took advantage of an exception to the 200-foot height limit in place at the time by putting in place an increased setback.


Commissioner Dan Leary made the motion to initiate historic zoning.


“I think it’s a tremendous, tremendous thing. We finally have admitted that this building is worthy of landmarking. At the time it was built, it was not considered the right thing to do in Austin, because of its site, right next to the Capitol Building, and there was a great deal of opposition,” said Leary. “The result of that is that we have what very few cities have, that is a significant view-corridor system in place. And this building is very much responsible for that being in place.”

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