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Owner seeks demolition of Red River house

Friday, August 29, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Red River International House moved one step closer to demolition Tuesday night.

The city has initiated historic zoning on the well-known red and white house at 3805 Red River St., after its owner sought permission to tear it down. Historic zoning would prevent the house from being demolished.

The current owner, 95-year-old Gwen Shive, purchased the house with her neighbors about 50 years ago. The group of neighbors, known as Delta H Corporation, joined forces to thwart commercial zoning from encroaching on the neighborhood. Though Shive is now the sole owner, she still has that mission.

Shive’s daughter, Karen Browning, spoke on her behalf. She said that Shive mistrusted offers to buy the house, which needs an estimated $475,000 in repairs.

Browning said the cost of the house, plus repairs, is a price tag that would only be sensible for someone hoping to turn it into a commercial venture. That, she said, would go against everything her mother had fought for. She said her hope was that a new building could keep the lot residential for another 50 years.

“We don’t want to sell it, because when you sell it, you lose control of it,” Browning said. “No one is going to buy this property out of the goodness of their heart and restore it. There’s always the risk of it becoming commercial. I don’t necessarily believe that everyone has pure motives. If you have to put that much money into a property, your motives are never going to be pure.”

Browning made it clear that if the city zoned the house historic against her mother’s wishes, she would sue on the grounds that it amounted to an uncompensated taking.

Planning Commissioners voted 5-3 to deny the historic zoning change, with Commissioners Nuria Zaragoza, Stephen Oliver and Jean Stevens voting in opposition. Chair Danette Chimenti was absent.

Despite the owner’s objections, staff is supporting a historic landmark designation for the house. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the house was the city’s “premier example” of residential International Style in the city.

“It really is a landmark,” said Sadowsky.

The city’s Historic Landmark Commission also supported the zoning change, unanimously. Preservation of the house has also attracted the interest of Austin’s preservation community as well as people who feel a connection to the house.

“The fact of the matter is that it is an architecturally distinctive, recognizable, character-laden property that so many people in Austin know and love,” said preservation architect Tere O’Connell. “It’s part of our unique history. There’s no other building like it. It’s salvageable, it’s worthy of preservation, and it’s worthy of the Austin Landmark designation.”

The house has attracted attention citywide and is the subject of a popular Facebook campaign that has received more than 27,000 views. With assurances that he was not being facetious, Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez suggested that interest could be monetized toward an effort to save the house.

Browning told the commission she was in no hurry to tear down her house, but she wanted the option.

“We just want the property preserved as single family,” said Browning. “Someday, somebody will build a great house on that corner. But it’s not going to be us, and it’s not going to be anytime soon.”

That gave some commissioners hope that a compromise could be struck someday down the road.

Though Browning intends to honor her mother’s wishes, she made it clear that it wasn’t too much of struggle to think of life without the Red River International House in Austin.

“I’ve never liked that house. When we grew up in the ’50s and the ’60s, we thought it was an ugly house,” said Browning.

Because of the owner’s opposition, a supermajority of City Council will have to approve the zoning change in order for historic zoning to be placed on the house,

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