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Judges Hill neighbors dispute calculation of support for district

Tuesday, November 5, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

After five years of work, Old Judges Hill may very well be Austin’s next Local Historic District, but not everyone in the neighborhood thinks that’s a good idea.


Proponents and opponents of the change spoke their piece at the Historic Landmark Commission last week, and though the commission approved the historic district zoning, serious questions were raised by those who hope to thwart the district.


Right now, 52.60 percent of land area has owners that are in support of the district. That calculation came under scrutiny at the commission meeting. Many of those who spoke against the district noted that it was based on a percentage of land area, not owners, and pointed out that land area included a piece of city property that was designated by the Historic Landmark Commission at its September meeting –  after the application for the district was submitted.


Preservation Officer Alyson McGee explained that, according to the code, the percentage of support could be based on either land area or population. She also explained that city land could be used in calculating support for a historic district.


“City land can be considered as a show of support, if the Historic Landmark Commission determines that land contributes to the historic character of the district,” said McGee. “The intent is, I think, exactly for this situation. If there is not a significant percentage of land or owners, then the city land could be counted.”


In this case, the two city-owned parcels are right-of-way, left after the houses were demolished to make way for a road. A cistern and “historic stone wall” remain.


Neighbor Rob Kohler said that 51 percent of the owners “has never been achieved.”


“We were shocked to learn that the only way that 51 percent was ever achieved was by action from this board, at the Sept. 23 meeting,” said Kohler, who asked that for an integrity audit of the process.


“It’s being done with city land and a handful of neighbors,” said Kohler.


Mark Seeger, who spoke in support of the district, said that when the neighborhood reached 52 percent, they stopped canvassing, because they had reached the threshold required.


Coats Rose Yale Ryman & Lee attorney Pamela Madere spoke on behalf of the 1802 West Avenue Lantana Apartments. She told the commission that the process had been a difficult one so far.


Madere said she was not involved in the stakeholder process. She said that documents and petitions were not given up “voluntarily or without a delay,” and were only obtained through an open records request.


Madere asked that the Lantana Apartments be removed from the district.


St. Martin’s Church congregational president Bristol Myers also spoke in opposition to the zoning, saying the parish was concerned about going forward with something that may not have majority support in the neighborhood.


Myers suggested that a portion of the church’s parking lot that was currently included in the district should have zoning that matched the church, which was built in 1960.


Other neighbors noted that the proposed district does not have the support of the full Judges Hill Neighborhood Association, and that should be a requirement before it was considered.


The boundaries of the proposed district are, roughly, West 15th Street, West 18th Street, West Avenue and San Gabriel Street. This includes 66 properties, 60 percent of which will be considered contributing.


Within the district, there are already 19 City of Austin Landmarks, seven of which are Texas Historic Landmarks and two are on the National Register of Historic Places. Four properties that are already designated as City of Austin Landmarks will be non-contributing because of the proposed period of significance, which is from 1850 to 1940. One of the buildings was relocated to the district in the 1970s, and the other three were built after 1940.


Originally, the period of significance would have extended until 1960, but that has been changed. Seeger, who spoke in support of the district, said they had rolled back the period of significance as “good neighbors.”


“We have listened to neighbors who feel like their homes should not be contributing structures, and have responded by moving the period of significance,” said Seeger. “These are good people. We have to go home and live with these people, and respect their choices and recommendations.”


The Historic Landmark Commission voted of 5-0-1 to approve the district, with Commissioner Dan Leary abstaining and Commissioner Mary Jo Galindo absent. The Planning Commission will hear the case at their Nov. 12 meeting, and it is scheduled to move on to City Council for the Nov. 21 meeting.

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