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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Planning Commission denies historic designation for frat house
Monday, October 15, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano
In a unanimous 9-0 vote, the Planning Commission declined to endorse historic zoning for the West Campus Leroy Brown House owned by a fraternity.
The commission’s recommendation was a rebuff of the Historic Landmark Commission, which voted to initiate historic zoning in a unanimous vote of 4-0, despite objections of the owner and a room full of people in support of demolition, including the neighborhood and the Texas Historical Association, and a complete absence of people advocating preservation of the house.
“It seems to me that there are five people in support of this (historic zoning), and that is the staff and four people on the Historic Commission,” said Planning Commissioner Brian Roark. “There are hundreds of people that do not want this. And while that might not always be the way we weigh these things, it seems like in this particular case, it should be influencing it.”
The Leroy Brown house, at 2707 Hemphill Park, is owned by the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, which had sold the land to the Brown family in 1914 and bought it back in 1995. The fraternity is seeking a demolition permit in order to build a 20,000-square-foot structure that would include 26 dorm rooms, a housemother suite, a great room, study halls and a reception space. Plans also call for two levels of underground parking.
A July 24 offer to relocate the building still stands. Attorney John Donisi, who is representing the fraternity, maintains that if an appropriate site is found, the request for a demolition permit would be withdrawn, and they would seek a relocation permit.
“We’d love to relocate this structure and save it,” said Donisi “I think the position I find myself in tonight is indicative of the challenge. No one has showed up to speak in favor of this historic designation. There is no person I can talk with to say, ‘Help me save it.’
Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained the case for historic zoning, saying the structure merited preservation based on being a rare example of Dutch Colonial Revival architecture and its association with Professor Leroy Brown. Sadowsky told the Planning Commission that Brown founded the state’s first commercial radio station (KUT) and developed a high-speed calculator that led to the creation of digital computers.
Donisi questioned Brown’s significance, explaining that not the city formally recognizes Bob Schenkkan as the founder of KUT. He also questioned the rarity of the architectural style, furnishing pictures of houses in a similar style that were already protected by historic zoning.
“We’re not at a loss for this type of architecture,” Donisi said. “It’s a neat structure. It has character. But we have structures in historic inventory that preserve the architectural style, both Dutch-colonial revival and the use of unique-shaped parapets. It’s not unique, rare or one-of-a-kind, based upon the city’s own records.”
Ex-Officio Member Jeff Jack, who is an architect, later said that the examples Donisi found were not the exact style of the Brown House.
Mary Ingle, who is a member of North University Neighborhood Association, and a self-identified preservationist, spoke in favor of demolition, explaining that the benefits of the new addition would outweigh preservation of the house. She explained that the additional parking, indoor party space, and reduced wear and tear on the historic main building of Phi Gamma Delta (Buen Retiro) were all appealing to the neighborhood.
Ingle said that when the neighborhood plan was developed in 2004, the area that the frat house was in was slated for upzoning and increased density.
“We all knew this structure was slated for more density,” said Ingle, who noted that the Historic Landmark Commission and city staff were just doing their job in initiating historic zoning. “I’m not criticizing them or the staff for any of this, but we have to be sensible,” said Ingle.
Commissioner Jean Stevens made the motion to deny historic zoning.
“I am a preservationist at heart, and when this case came in front of me, I was very sorry to have it here and was trying to figure out ways in which I could call in sick tonight, so I wouldn’t have to vote on it,” said Stevens.
Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez seemed less torn, saying, “There’s probably a reason that there aren’t any other homes that look like this.”
The case next heads to City Council, where a decision to grant historic zoning over the owner’s objections would require six votes. Such cases are rarely successful.
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