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Board grants variance for novel preservation plan

Thursday, September 11, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Board of Adjustment gave the go-ahead for a novel preservation strategy at its Monday night meeting.

Newcastle Homes’ Lex Zwarum’s proposal, which he describes as a “win-win,” will zone the existing house at 2100 East 14th St. as a historic landmark. The variance, which was unanimously granted by board members, will allow him to construct a larger second unit on the lot than would otherwise be allowed – 1,650 square feet instead of 850 square feet. The size of the lot is 7,850 square feet.

In a letter to the board, Zwarum explained that because of the dilapidated state of the house, rehabbing it alone wouldn’t be economically feasible. However, with the ability to build the larger second unit, he could save the house by preserving the facade and scale and adding a two-story addition to the rear, as allowed by code and historic zoning. When completed, the historic home will be 1,698 square feet.

Though not present at the meeting, neighbor Stephanie Amack opposed the project, saying she had seen a number of small houses in the neighborhood torn down to make way for “monstrosities.” Amack said the granting of the variance would solidify a precedent that houses could be torn down to build others as large as developers want, without regard to the neighborhood. She wrote,”It is not changing at a sustainable pace; it is changing so rapidly that we feel as though our privacy has been taken away from us.”

In general, though, the plan had neighborhood support. Zwarum told the board that the plan originally came from the Chestnut Neighborhood Association.

Board of Adjustment Chair Jeff Jack said, “You presented an interesting dilemma for us, because you are essentially asking for a trade-off between saving a historic structure. But the proposition that was presented was that you needed to have income from a secondary unit to help pay for the preservation of the historic structure. The problem is that even though we would like to maintain this historic structure, we don’t want to use it simply as leverage to give you more development opportunity than your neighbors.”

“It has to be a balance,” Jack continued. “We can’t open the door for every potential historic building to be used to build more density.”

Along with their approval, board members attached a condition that Zwarum pursue historic zoning on the house.

Zwarum said that after his first visit to the board last month, he had gone to the Historic Landmark Commission’s Appropriateness Committee and gotten its unofficial approval earlier in the day.

Though Zwarum had a letter from Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky saying as much, an attempt to scan the document and send it to the board in advance of the meeting had mangled the hard copy into “shreds,” according to Zwarum.

The historic home was built in 1906. According to Sadowsky, it has long ties to Austin’s African-American history. Sadowsky also noted that the historic appearance of the house was very important to the Chestnut neighborhood, which is in the process of establishing a locally designated historic district.


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