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Proposed local historic district wins first victory

Thursday, November 20, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed local historic district within Travis Heights won the unanimous support of the Historic Landmark Commission this week.

“I received something like 17 letters in favor of this, and only one letter in opposition,” said Commissioner Terri Myers.

Bluebonnet Hills is an area within Travis Heights bounded by Annie Street on the north, Leland Street on the south, East Side Drive on the east and Brackenridge Street on the west. The proposed historic district consists of 118 buildings. Of those, 85 buildings are considered historic. Just over half of the total number of homeowners (63) support the creation of the district. City code requires that 51 percent of the buildings in the district be historic and that 51 percent of the homeowners support the district’s creation.

Melanie Martinez said that when she started the Travis Heights Historic District effort in 2005, they had about 75 percent integrity.

“You can imagine how much we’ve lost,” said Martinez.

Because of that, the group switched tactics, deciding to work toward preserving the heart of the neighborhood, which she said was still “relatively pristine” and could work as an anchor for the larger Travis Heights local historic district, which encompasses about 1,200 homes.

“If this doesn’t go through, it’s going to be a quick erosion of this neighborhood,” said resident Brent Hunter. “If there’s not a greater vision here, it’s all going to be gone and it’s never coming back. This city is just becoming Anywhere, USA.”

If created, the historic district will make demolishing contributing properties more difficult, establish design standards for the area and give property tax incentives for rehabilitation of buildings.

When homes are not in historic districts, the city must designate them as individual historic landmarks in order to save them from being razed. But within a local historic district, finding that it contributes to the character of the district can be enough to prevent its demolition.

If approved by the city, owners of contributing structures can receive seven-year property tax abatement for increases in property value that come from historically accurate repairs. The abatement is also available to owners of noncontributing structures that restore their homes in order to make them contributing. In return, homeowners must get city permission for alterations to the exterior of contributing homes.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the abatement currently only applied to city taxes, but said there were discussions taking place to see if the benefit could extend to other taxing entities in the city.

Angela Reed, the interim director for Preservation Austin, spoke in support of the local district, saying it was the “best tool that we have to protect that eclectic and historic character of our neighborhood in the face of very strong development pressures.”

She said the Tudor houses and bungalows in the area are under “what seems to be constant threat of demolition” with investors buying houses — sight unseen — to build to the hilt of what is allowed under code.

Arif Panju and his wife, Maryam Panju, both spoke in opposition to the designation. They also live in Bluebonnet Hills.

“We are going to have to come and ask for permission for just about anything we do on the outside of our house,” said Arif Panju. “I understand that some people want houses to look a certain way, but I trust Travis Heights, as many homeowners have for several generations.”

“I trust my neighbors to do what’s best for them,” he continued. “I trust my neighbors to keep their houses the way they like to keep them. We like the character of our neighborhood, but by no means would I impose my view of the neighborhood on other people simply because I think it should look a certain way.”

Maryam Panju said that she is from Afghanistan and grew up in countries where peoples’ rights were taken away through fear. She said governing such small details made her nervous.

“I feel like there is an origin of fear in this,” she said. “Because some developer came and bought a house next to somebody who initiated this process and wants to minimize rights of other property owners.” She also pointed out that they had short notice about the hearing. She said that she suspected many neighbors would reverse their support once they heard what a historic district entailed.

Both Maryam and Arif Panju said they were surprised by the push for a local historic district, but members of the community who have worked to establish the district for the past nine years as well as Commissioner Myers stressed the extensive public outreach that had led up to Monday’s hearing.

Sadowsky explained that the proposal was the result of “a lot of hours by some very dedicated people.”

“I do want to say that Bluebonnet Hills is one of those neighborhoods in Austin that is seeing a lot of development. And a lot of that development is out of scale with what’s there right now — it’s much larger than anything else in the neighborhood,” said Sadowsky. “Designation of Bluebonnet Hills as a historic district will allow developers and property owners to be more sensitive to the character of the district when they are designing new projects.”

Commissioners voted 4-0 in support of the district, with Chair Laurie Limbacher and Commissioners John Rosato and Dan Leary absent. The proposed district is set to go before both the Planning Commission and City Council before the end of the year.

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