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Historic District wins Planning Commission support

Thursday, May 28, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The proposed Bluebonnet Hills preservation district was back at City Hall this week. This time, it won the support of the Planning Commissioners.

On Tuesday, commission members voted 5-1 to recommend creation of the Bluebonnet Hills Historic District, with Commissioner Brian Roark voting against. Commissioners Jean Stevens, Alfonso Hernandez and Richard Hatfield were absent.

The local historic district has been recommended by the Historic Landmark Commission on three separate occasions; twice, however, its recommendation was invalidated because of procedural errors. This was the second time the Planning Commission considered the district, but its first vote.

If approved by City Council, the district would encompass 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.

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

Commissioner James Nortey made the motion to approve the district. He pointed out that it was in line with both the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, which calls for the proliferation of historic districts, as well as the neighborhood plan.

“It’s clear that the residents have exhibited extraordinary effort in trying to prepare this application,” said Nortey. “It’s clear that they’ve played by the rules that were provided by the city. It’s also clear that a minority of residents are opposed to this. … I think that playing by the rules in a fair democracy would grant the application should be approved.”

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza agreed.

“If we want to preserve what is historically significant in Austin, it’s going to take something outside of regular operation,” said Zaragoza.

Roark did not agree. He said there was only one historic home in the neighborhood and that the district was a way to stymie progress.

“Just because someone has passed the minimum requirements to initiate a process, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t mean it’s the fair thing to do,” said Roark. “What’s truly historic about this area is its eccentricity and diversity. … That’s preserved by freedom, not restriction.”

The previous time the case was before the Planning Commission, there was some question about whether support for the district had dwindled since the petition was first validated. Though majority support is required only when the application is accepted by the city, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky brought the most recent totals to the meeting. According to Sadowsky, one hour prior to the meeting, 53.57 percent of owners within the proposed district supported its creation.

That number includes only those who actively support the historic district. Of the rest, 25.7 percent oppose the district, and the remainder are neutral or have not weighed in.

Saundra Kirk, who is a former planning commissioner, asked the commission to support the preservation goals that are part of the neighborhood plan, or risk “obliterating the historic resources that make our city unique.”

Resident Angela Reed, one of the leaders of the preservation effort, emphasized that the application had been fully vetted by the Historic Landmark Commission three times and has neighborhood support, including support from the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association.

“Tonight I want to speak to the overwhelming support that Bluebonnet Hills district continues to maintain by our residents – despite a deliberate misinformation campaign by essentially one person, despite city delays and despite the fact that it’s been almost a year since we turned this application in to the city,” said Reed.

“I hear concerns of people wishing there was another way. Simply, there just isn’t, in terms of keeping the historic character of a district,” Reed continued. “Really, these design standards are not meant to try to micromanage our neighbors. … We all want flexibility and creativity, and the design standards are truly meant to be as flexible as possible while still offering some kind of protection for our eclectic neighborhood.

“This is about the big picture.”

Resident Rana Pierucci questioned the process and said that regulating the aesthetics of the neighborhood is a way to lose what makes the neighborhood great in the first place.

“I don’t want someone telling me what to do with my home,” said Pierucci. “I agree with preserving our homes and not having these giant developments come in. … I would support a historic district if it were all of Travis Heights. But five streets? It seems like it is either going to be a burden to the people within the district property-tax wise, or a benefit to others, or vice versa.”

Those who spoke against the district echoed Pierucci’s worries that its implementation would diminish their property rights. Both sides expressed concern and sadness that the fight over the district had created bad blood and divided the area.

Kent Anschutz, who is also on the city’s Public Safety Commission, spoke in favor of the district. “This is not some creeping social control or red scare or red menace,” said Anschutz. “This is a small neighborhood that is asking to save the character of it. The bulldozers are running over there every day.”

Resident Arif Panju, who was recently appointed to the Historic Landmark Commission, has led the opposition to the district. He objected to his categorization as a “captain of misinformation.” He reiterated concerns that there are serious issues with the process and called for citywide reform.

“This is a broken system,” said Panju. “When it’s done in a way that reflects true due process and transparency, I think we can revisit this.”

In making the motion to approve, Nortey also recommended that the Planning Commission’s Codes and Ordinances Committee consider revising the local historic district application process in the future.

Commissioners also voted to recommend creation of a neighborhood advisory committee that could provide insight into design standards in the future.

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