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Proposed local historic district in jeopardy

Thursday, April 16, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The proposed Bluebonnet Hills Historic District hit another speed bump Tuesday, this time at the Planning Commission.

At the end of a lengthy discussion, commissioners opted to postpone the case until May 26. This will give the applicants time to return to the Historic Landmark Commission for a third vote. Though the Historic Landmark Commission has consistently voted in favor of the district, it has reconsidered the case twice based on procedural errors.

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. Historic districts make demolishing contributing properties more difficult, establish design standards for the area and give property tax incentives for rehabilitation of buildings.

Commissioners voted 7-1 to postpone the case, with Commissioner Richard Hatfield in opposition. Hatfield explained that he would likely be unable to support the historic district when it returned to the Planning Commission, as it seemed unlikely it would have a majority of neighborhood support by that date.

In order to submit an application for a historic district, a majority of that district must support the change. However, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the petition does not need to maintain a 51 percent threshold throughout the life of the application.

The application had the support of 57 percent of residents when first submitted. Since then, it has fallen to 43 percent — or 49 out of 109 homes.

Arif Panju, who has led the charge against the district, conducted his own survey. He said he had the signatures of 40 residents against the district. The city has not validated that petition.

Though Sadowsky assured the commission that fluctuation was normal and that the numbers had most likely changed since the last tally, it was clear that the change agitated some commissioners.

It remained a sticking point for Commissioner Brian Roark, who said he was having trouble understanding from a policy perspective why they were moving forward with the district.

“In some sense, this is nothing other than a minority of folks … imposing their own set of values on the neighborhood,” said Roark. “If you can’t even say that at least 50 percent of the folks in the neighborhood support this, from a policy perspective, why would the city enforce restrictions on folks’ property rights that just don’t want them? It’s a change in the rules midstream. … (For) most folks, their home is the major investment of their life.”

Roark said he could not think of a reason to impose restrictions “without some kind of supermajority.” Hatfield also said he would like to see the support in the 66 percent range.

Other commissioners, like Jean Stevens, had less trouble seeing the value of a historic district. Currently, Austin has only three such areas. Preservation Austin’s Kate Singleton presented a list of cities to show that Austin has many fewer designated historic districts than peer cities. Denver, for example, has 52, San Antonio has 27 and Houston has 19.

Stevens said she lives in a local historic district and appreciated the protections they afford. She encouraged other commissioners to look at the city’s historic districts in the next month.

“This does not, in any way, stymie growth or new development,” said Stevens. “What it does is it gives a significant nod to those residents that have been in place, that make this an area that we all want to live in.”

Angela Reed spoke in support of the application as a resident of Bluebonnet Hills. She said the effort started 10 years ago. However, she explained, after teardowns and ownership changes, district supporters decided to limit the original 1,200 homes of Travis Heights to the current proposal for the Bluebonnet Hills subdivision, which consists of 109 homes.

Reed showed photos of some of the condominiums in the area, saying that while they might not be unattractive, they had replaced affordable homes and changed the character of the neighborhood.

Reed explained her and her neighbors’ support of the district, saying, “We believe it will protect our neighborhood’s character from being sold to the highest bidder. It will promote pride in the neighborhood’s architectural legacy. And it will maintain a design that celebrates the natural landscape and, even more important, fosters community cohesion.”

Panju spoke in opposition to the district along with one other neighbor. He said many people in the neighborhood had “their own vision for their own home.” Panju said the neighborhood has “stayed pretty much the same” since 2009.

“We love the individuality of it and how it’s expressed through their homes,” he said.

Chair Danette Chimenti, who lives in a different area of Travis Heights, said that she has recognized the “tremendous effort” put into the application for the district.

“Our historic neighborhoods … are very valuable to Austin,” said Chimenti. “And I think we have to do a lot to try to maintain some of what we have here.”

Image courtesy of the City of Austin.


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