Thursday, February 20, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council efforts to block plan to move historic house could fall short

City Council members did what they could last week to thwart plans to move the historic Dabney-Horne House, but only time will tell whether it will be enough to keep the structure in place.


The University Co-op has owned the property at 507 West 23rd Street since the mid-1970s, and the 1883 house was zoned historic in 1992. Last year, a plan to move the house to East Austin was unsuccessful, as was a plan to remove a heritage tree from the lot. However, the Co-op now plans to move the house within the lot to allow for development of student housing.


The move within the property will be permitted due to a staff error in timing that released the Certificate of Appropriateness (See Austin Monitor, Feb. 12) But Council didn’t give the Co-op or developers anything else that would make that move easier.


The Co-op was asking for a reduction of the historic zoning on the tract, and the termination of a restrictive covenant that prevented a move off the property. Council voted unanimously to reject the request to terminate the restrictive covenant. Council also voted 5-2 to keep the historic zoning on the site, with Council Members Chris Riley and Bill Spelman dissenting.


Though a Certificate of Appropriateness to move the house about 12 feet has been granted, developers will need another certificate to alter or restore the house (as they have proposed.) Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky asked Council to refrain from reducing the historic zoning on the land until after the house had been moved and plans were firmed up. He noted that, should plans fall through, the zoning change would remain on the lot if approved.


Norton Rose Fulbright partner Adam Schramek argued that the contract to sell the house and parking lot was contingent on the zoning change, and asked for that change in order to move forward with the sale, and concrete site plans.


“If we can’t get this zoning until we move the house, then we are forced to move it immediately… But that was supposed to be what the developer did,” said Schramek.


It was unclear whether the move would help close the sale, or whether it could be done without getting a certificate of appropriateness to remove later additions to the house.


Members of Austin’s preservation community continued to speak against the move and rezoning. They told City Council that the lot was zoned historic intentionally, and was part of the historic landmark.


“I’m really offended. It’s a full-court press. They won’t give up. They won’t leave it alone… It’s tiresome. The preservation community is tired of fighting this,” said Joe Pinnelli, a contractor who specializes in historic restoration. “And if you think they did an end-run to get their certificate of appropriateness, wait till you see what they do with the chopped-up standards of how they are going to jam that house on that site.”

Council members weighed the value of new housing against historic preservation in their deliberations.


“We need to be mindful that we have lots of values we want to promote and protect. One is historic preservation, and one is student housing and affordable housing. There are going to be times that we are going to have to decide which one we are going to move toward.” said Council Member Laura Morrison. “There are other places for affordable housing, and it will result potentially in less, but it’s more important here to maintain this stellar example of a historic landmark.”


Riley disagreed.


“I don’t find the surface parking lot particularly historic, and that’s what we are talking about. We are talking about whether that surface parking should have historic zoning,” said Riley. “We aren’t just talking about a few less units. We are talking about the ability to get 296 beds…as compared to something like 96 beds. Almost 300 UT students will not be able to live here, two blocks from the drag, as a result of the decision we make here tonight.”


Spelman pointed to another decision Council made that night, which could lower maximum occupancy rates in the near future, saying that both decisions would limit options for student housing.


“I think every time we make a decision in favor of historic preservation, or in favor of keeping neighborhoods, we have to recognize that there may be consequences to those conclusions. In this case, I believe we are going to be making two decisions in a row against affordable housing, despite the fact that we are actually in favor of affordable housing,” said Spelman.


“I’m not entirely happy with losing the prospect of more student housing myself,” said Mayor Lee Leffingwell. “But in this case, I think we have to honor the landmark status of this particular building.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

certificate of appropriateness: This certification is required for proposed exterior and site changes to city historic landmarks and properties in local historic districts. Those changes must be approved by the Historic Landmark Commission.

Dabney-Horne House: This house was built in 1883. Formerly occupied in the late 19th-Century by University of Texas professor Robert Dabney. Zoned historic.

historic preservation: Official actions of a municipality such as the City of Austin taken to preserve structures with their jurisdiction. Preservation is often accompanied by a property tax exemption.

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