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Appeal allows Co-op to move Dabney-Horne House

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

There have been plenty of twists and turns along the way, but it looks like plans to move the historic Dabney-Horne House 12 feet are fairly unstoppable, due to a scheduling problem.


The case has been in and out of the city’s boards and commissions for some time now. Most recently, the University Co-op appealed a decision on a Certificate of Appropriateness that was denied by the Historic Landmark Commission, because the commission did not act within the time frame required by code.


Staff and city lawyers determined this was, indeed, the case, and so the certificate was granted, as required by law. Though this left the appeal 4 and void, the Planning Commission was still asked to weigh in on two other items: termination of a restrictive covenant that would have prevented the move, and a rezoning that will shrink the portion of the property that is designated Historic.


Though the two items would allow for redevelopment of the lot, the move within the lot can no longer be prevented.


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. Last year, a plan to move the house into East Austin was successfully thwarted, as was a plan to remove a heritage tree on the property.


The rezoning will move forward to City Council Thursday without a recommendation from the Planning Commission. The commission voted 3-4 to deny the rezoning, with Commissioners Danette Chimenti, Jean Stevens and Myron Smith voting in favor. Commissioner James Nortey was absent. Commissioner Brian Roark had left the meeting before this case came up even though he participated in the early part of the meeting.


Chimenti spoke out against the move, and the idea of taking historic landmarks and “shoving them off to the corner somewhere.”


“We do want to densify. We do want all this progress. But we also have to really be careful about our historic structures. We landmark things for a reason. And that is to preserve them and incorporate them into parts of the neighborhood,” said Chimenti.


Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez disagreed, saying the plan “balanced progress and history.”


The commission did reach consensus on the termination of a restrictive covenant on the lot, voting unanimously to have it removed.


The University Co-op plans to move the house in order to build student housing that they say is crucial for their financial future. The house will remain at 507 West 23rd Street, but the shift on the lot will allow for the new construction.


Norton Rose Fulbright partner Adam Schramek represented the Co-op and told the commission that the move will ultimately be good for the house.


“That house is not a good-looking house right now. We can ultimately make it an important part of West Campus,” said Schramek. “It will be restored to its glory of 1935, 1900, 1912. Pick the year. There are lots of options… This is not attacking historical zoning. This is a way that we preserve and progress, hand in hand together into the future, instead of being at each others’ necks in the past.”


The move faces continued opposition from Preservation Austin, explained Lin Team.


“Preservation Austin has been following this case since last April,” said Team. “This comes down to the integrity of the tools we have to preserve Austin.”


Team noted that the city only had two such tools — restrictive covenants, and historic landmark designation – both of which were being challenged by the Co-op. She said that both of the tools were put in place to guarantee the house would stay as it is


“If we don’t take those tools seriously, if we don’t respect the promises that were made…Then we might as well give up, and go home and let the developers have everything,” said Team.


Sarah Crocker spoke on behalf of adjacent neighbors Catherine and George Cary, opposing the change. She expressed frustration about the lack of information neighbors had been given about the project. She noted that rezoning the lot would remove 53 percent of the historic designation on the site.


“If you are moving a historic landmark, with the potential of taking off certain portions of it, and basically rearranging on the site to accommodate a development, I would think the absolute minimum courtesy would be to show why that needs to be done,” said Crocker. “If the developer knows he needs that extra 5,000 feet, I guarantee you he has plans.”


Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the entire yard was zoned historic not only to protect the house, but also its context. The Historic Landmark Commission recommended against removing any of the Historic zoning on the lot, but Sadowsky said they could support a change if they had more information about the plans.


“We will entertain a proposal to remove Historic zoning, but this is not the time to be doing it. There are still too many steps to be taken,” said Sadowsky, who noted that modifications to the house, and the exact future location of the house had yet to be established.


Schramek objected to those plans, noting that a “lot of chicken and egg” had occurred in terms of what order they should approach the project. He said that if they received the zoning change from City Council, they would go back to the commission to address any changes to the house, but it made no sense to develop detailed plans before that was assured.


Planning and Development Review’s Jerry Rusthoven told the commission that the case had shed light on the fact that there were two different time frames in the code for Certificate of Appropriateness approval. He said that city staff plans to fix that discrepancy soon.

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