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Landmark Commission postpones demo permit for Rio Grande property

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Historic Landmark Commission decided to take more time to consider a case that was before them on Monday, responding to the concerns of eagle-eyed neighbors worried that developers had run afoul of city regulations.


Cirrus Logic, Inc. is asking for release of a demolition permit for the properties at 604 and 606 Rio Grande Street. The bright yellow stucco houses were home to Aquarelle restaurant in the recent past, and are thought to have been constructed between 1901 and 1925.


The demolition must be evaluated by the Historic Landmark Commission, which could instead recommend historic landmark status for the building. However, prior to the commission’s meeting, neighbors witnessed the removal of windows and columns from the house, prompting concerns that the demolition had already begun.


Neighbors asked for time to look into the matter in order to investigate whether a violation of city code had taken place.


Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle said that there had been no demolition authorized by the company. He said that asbestos abatement that had taken place did not require a demolition permit, according to the hired contractor. Suttle said that he didn’t know what had happened to the columns, calling their removal “news.”


“I can tell you there was no intent to begin any kind of demolition,” said Suttle. “The asbestos abatement delivery ticket shows that it was delivered on March 7th, I believe, and we’ve done our best to protect the building waiting on what your decision is.”


Witnesses said that the windows and columns were removed this past weekend of March 22.


Commissioner Terri Myers said that on Saturday, she received several calls and emails about construction crews taking the windows out and columns away, saying it was a “flurry of activity less than 48 hours before this meeting.”


When Suttle expressed concern that the activity could have been unsanctioned “taking our stuff” unrelated to the asbestos abatement, Chair Laurie Limbacher expressed doubt. She explained that when she called 311 about the activity, she was rerouted to 911, who explained that police had been dispatched and determined the windows were being taken by a construction crew, with the owner’s permission.


Suttle said that, as far as Cirrus was concerned, there was no authority to take anything off of the house. He said that he wished those people who were concerned about the demolition activity over the weekend had called.


“Obviously, Cirrus Logic wants to build their campus here. They do not want to start off like this. This is not their way of doing business. It’s just not; it’s wrong. I hope we do find out what happened,” said Suttle. “Rest assured, if there was something done without our direction, and that wasn’t right, there will be consequences. But I don’t think the consequences should change the application for a demolition permit, or the historic criteria.” 


“The issue before you is, strictly, does this meet any of the landmark criteria. Prior to actually purchasing this property, we did our own research, and the city staff did some preliminary research showing that there was probably no reason to landmark it, nor did it meet any of the criteria,” said Suttle. “We stand by the staff recommendation, and absolutely it has no architectural quality, it has no reference in history – the things you normally look at.”


Limbacher pointed out that the commission also normally looks at an intact house, and with columns, windows and sashes missing, it was more difficult to evaluate the architectural merits of the building.  


“For whatever reason, this property has been dismantled, and character-defining features that we would typically consider in our evaluation have been removed,” said Limbacher. “I think that creates a situation that, at a minimum, causes confusing and certainly causes concern.”


Myers reminded Suttle that it was the role of the commission, not the developer or staff, to make the recommendation for historic zoning.


“We make the decision,” said Myers. “I think you jumped the gun on this.”


Joe Bryson, who lives about a block away from the property, explained that he was concerned about the future of several lots purchased by the company, and slated to be part of their Austin campus. He said he was concerned about the apparent lack of an overall plan – or at least an overall plan that was shared with the neighborhood.


“I feel like there is something unfolding here that concerns me. It is not just a construction crew that is out of hand. There is a process out of hand on this,” said Bryson.


Representatives from the Original Austin Neighborhood Association and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association expressed similar concerns. They asked that the case be postponed to allow for further investigation and research.


The commission voted 7-0 to postpone the case until their next meeting, which will take place on April 22. They asked that the owners secure the building in the meantime and, if possible, the original windows be reinstalled.


Suttle told In Fact Daily on Tuesday that it would be impossible to reinstall the windows because they had been thrown away.


Asked what they planned to do about other items, such as columns and sashes that were removed, Suttle said, “From what I can understand now, all of that stuff is coming back. We’re working on getting the building secure tomorrow (put boards on the windows). It’s just a huge misunderstanding. The contractor thought he could abate the windows without the permit…and Cirrus was over there making chips and didn’t know any of this was going on.”

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