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Landmark Commission blocks Co-op request to re-locate historic home

Friday, July 26, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

University Co-op’s plans to develop its land in West Campus were thwarted in a new way at Monday night’s Historic Landmark Commission meeting.


Earlier this year, the Co-op was unsuccessful in obtaining a variance that would allow removal of a heritage tree on the property. Both the Environmental Board and the Planning Commission rejected the variance. (See In Fact Daily, April 3)


As zoned, the Co-op would theoretically be able to build up to 20 stories on the lot at 507 West 23rd Street. But in addition to the heritage tree, the lot is home to one of Austin’s historic landmarks, and plans to move the Dabney-Horne House from West Campus to East Austin gained no traction at the Historic Landmark Commission, who voted unanimously against the relocation.


The house was built in 1883 and is most significantly associated with Robert Lewis Dabney and Stuart Walsh Horne. Horne was a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and Dabney helped found the Austin School of Theology, and allegedly designed the house.


The University Co-op has owned the property since the mid-1970s. The house was zoned historic in 1992. In conjunction with a rezoning to General Office- Conditional Overlay, a restrictive covenant was placed on the property. That covenant stipulates that the house is to remain on the property.


The owners will need City Council approval to lift the restrictive covenant and move the house to a lot at 2923 East Martin Luther King Blvd.


Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the site was not appropriate.


The buyer, who was represented by Donna Carter of Carter Design Associates, explained that the site was not their first choice, but they had struggled to find a lot big enough to hold the 70-foot wide house in a competitive real estate market. (Previous postponement of the case had already led to another lot falling through. Carter showed a picture of a house already being constructed on that property.)


Carter explained they had a second choice for the relocation on East 13th Street, but that lot would require the house to be oriented incorrectly, with the front porch facing to the side.


“This is a particularly difficult presentation for me to make,” said Carter. “We all understand that this is not the ideal solution.”


Carter noted that at the time historic zoning was placed on the house, the University Neighborhood was in the midst of a development battle in the neighborhood that had since been settled by the creation of the University Neighborhood Overlay.


“This house is a remnant of the old fight,” said Carter. “We can stand on a certain set of ideals and really take the high ground…Or we can work to save the bricks and sticks. Because right now we do have a prospective buyer who is willing to put the money into it.”


Carter said maintaining historic zoning on the house through a move would guarantee that the house would be restored in cooperation with the city and commission. She expressed fears that, if purchased by someone else, it would be allowed to “melt into dust” where it now stands.


James Kielty, who is the Chief Financial Officer of the University Co-op, told the commission that they were in dire financial straits and needed to develop the property. He emphasized the co-op’s role in the community, saying the non-profit employs over a hundred people, paying them a living wage and full benefits.


“To sell this property is extremely important to us, just to keep this company going in at least the short term,” said Kielty.


Sarah Crocker, who was representing adjacent neighbors Catherine and George Cary, spoke against relocating the house. She pointed out that there were many historic houses nearby, including her clients’. Crocker said the notion that the character of the area had changed enough to warrant moving the building was somewhat absurd, considering the parking garage that changed the character is owned by and was built by the University Co-op in 2006.


“If the area has been stripped of character, it’s been stripped by the very people that are up here talking to you,” said Crocker. “This area is primarily going to be high rises, and we all know that. But does that mean that we have to scrape the earth of everything up there just for density?”


Crocker said she was in favor of density in the area, but aware that there were clear exceptions made to preserve important historic structures in the district.


“This is located in an area of the UNO subdivision that basically doesn’t have rules. It’s an area where the most dense development is supposed to go. It’s almost a perfect scorched-earth policy,” said Crocker.


Sadowsky recommended against relocation of the houses. He acknowledged that historic landmarks had been moved in the past for preservation purposes, but they were moved prior to being designated historic landmarks.


Preservation Austin (formerly the Heritage Society of Austin) also opposes moving the house.


The Historic Landmark Commission members unanimously agreed, voting 4-0 to deny the relocation. Chair Laurie Limbacher and Commissioners Dan Leary and Leslie Wolfenden Guidry were absent.


“From my perspective, it sets a dangerous precedent for us as a commission to support anything that would go against such a covenant,” said Commissioner Andrea Roberts.

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