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Council debates Red River House designation

Monday, October 20, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, City Council took the first step toward designating a familiar Red River Street house as a historic landmark, despite the owner’s objections.

“I dare say that anybody who has ever made a trip around the University of Texas campus or I-35 hasn’t failed to notice this house,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. “It’s that important to our architectural history in Austin.”

“Every once in a while, we have to put the property owner’s wishes as second fiddle to what’s good for our community,” he continued. “This house is so important to our architectural heritage that we have to do that this time.”

The red and white house popularly known as “the Boat House” is located at 3805 Red River St. The Historic Landmark Commission, Preservation Austin, Preservation Texas and Mid-Tex Mod have all advocated for its preservation, and representatives stayed late last Thursday to speak in favor of a historic designation for the house. A Facebook campaign to save the house also garnered considerable attention.

Karen Browning, who spoke on behalf of homeowner Gwen Shive, her 95-year-old mother, remained unswayed.

“I will grant you, it is unique and different and interesting, but not all that special. You could reproduce it if you wanted to,” said Browning, who added that offers to let someone move the house off the lot remained on the table.

Council voted 6-1 to approve the historic zoning on first reading. Because Shive has objected to the rezoning and has filed a petition to that effect, Council must have six votes to approve the change. Council Member Mike Martinez voted in opposition.

Council Member Bill Spelman said he was concerned about the potential cost to Shive and the possibility that zoning the house could be considered a taking. However, he added that he was “more concerned about the cost to the community of removing a house which is a landmark to anybody that I’ve ever met that has driven past it.”

“To me, it’s been a landmark since the very first day I was in Austin, Texas,” said Spelman.

Sadowsky, who is supporting the change to historic zoning, showcased the house’s stylistic importance to the city, though he acknowledged that the house currently had “major issues.”

Those issues could cost Shive an estimated $476,000 in repairs. Though there have been offers to buy the house and restore it, Browning has said that the high cost of repairs combined with the $400,000 value of the home could force the new owners to find a commercial use for the house. This would be in direct opposition to her mother’s wish to keep the lot residential.

“These people have placed the interests of this single house above the interests of the neighborhood,” said Browning. “I ask that you not impose this unjust and unfair burden upon my mother and dismiss her half-century of stewardship and preserving the residential character of this neighborhood.”

Shive purchased the house in the 1960s with several neighbors in order to stave off commercial creep into the neighborhood. More than 50 years later, that is still Shive’s goal. And though she would like the option to build a new house someday, she is determined not to let the lot be zoned commercial.

Attorney Matt Williams, who represents Shive, asked that Council deny the “forcible imposition of historical zoning,” which he said would present Shive with a “$500,000 bill” that he said could amount to a Fifth Amendment taking.

“This is not about Moderne-German architecture, from our perspective,” said Williams. “This is about the fact that these people are so caught up in the architecture and the lines and the design … (that) they haven’t put much thought into how much money this might cost. They don’t care.”

Alyson McGee, who is the president-elect of Preservation Austin, disputed the notion that zoning the house against the owner’s wishes would constitute a taking. She pointed out that legal precedent established this, and it was the same principle that allowed the city to impose zoning and other restrictions that limit homeowners’ “unfettered use of their land.”

Historic Landmark Commissioner Terri Myers also addressed Council, saying, “In my six years on the commission, I’ve never come to you to plead a case. But this case warrants it.”

“This is the real deal. This is the real McCoy,” said Myers. “This is something that, if it’s gone, it won’t come back.”

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