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Tricky East Austin case gets more complicated

Thursday, June 4, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

The story of the Waller on Swede Hill project and why City Council won’t likely consider historic zoning for the Stasswender House until August is a complicated one.

Early this year, in an attempt to stave off a proposed condo development in East Austin, the Swede Hill neighborhood asked the city to consider historic zoning for the houses on the land. At the same time, developer WJP Swede Hill LLC was asking that the land be rezoned in order to move forward with the project.

Those two cases were combined, but now that the developer’s zoning case has been withdrawn, the neighborhood’s historic zoning case is going back to the Planning Commission for a second approval.

The Austin Monitor spoke with the lead opponent to the project, Swede Hill Neighborhood Association secretary Louisa Brinsmade, after most of the dust had settled.

Following last week’s City Council meeting, Brinsmade was resigned to the fact that the four smaller houses at East 16th and Waller Streets would be demolished despite her best efforts. But she remained frustrated with how much of her time had been taken up opposing the case, and how confusing the process had been even though she had paid close attention to every twist and turn.

“Zoning cases are not taffy. They shouldn’t be pulled this way and that way according to whomever’s interest or agenda is the strongest at the time,” said Brinsmade. “At the very least we should be back at (Historic Landmark Commission) to make sure this is clear, and clean, and proceeding according to process, especially as it’s so controversial, so contested and so complicated.

“I feel like we’ve really been kind of jerked around, back and forth, and robbed of our ability to take action to prevent the issuance of these (demolition) permits in time,” said Brinsmade.

The complications did not escape the notice of Council Member Ora Houston at last Thursday’s City Council meeting, when Council members discussed, but took no action on, the case.

“Something happened in this process that really feels wrong to me,” said Houston, who questioned why the upzoning and historic zoning cases were combined in the first place.

Though the historic zoning case originated at the Historic Landmark Commission, it was combined with the request for more-intense zoning at the Planning Commission the following night.

The Planning and Zoning Department’s Jerry Rusthoven explained that the city has a policy that prohibits multiple zoning cases on one piece of property.

Then, last week, because owner Wes Peoples had withdrawn the main zoning case, it wasn’t possible for Council to take action on the historic zoning component of the case. Rusthoven said that they had come up with a solution – return to the Planning Commission for a stand-alone recommendation about historic zoning on the main house. Following that recommendation, it will return to City Council once again.

Noting there “were some procedural issues,” Rusthoven told Council that it would be cleaner to take up the historic zoning on its own at this point.

Assistant City Attorney Deborah Thomas explained that the major posting issue was that when the case was at the Planning Commission in March, it was not posted that they would be considering historic zoning.

However, the case was at City Council just one week prior, with no mention of this problem. Thomas said that if she had known, she would have recommended the case return to the Planning Commission.

Brinsmade told the Monitor that she had registered her objection when the cases were combined on the grounds that it would be “too hard to parse these things back apart,” leaving the fate of the historic zoning case unclear if the other zoning case failed.

When the case was at the Planning Commission in March, commissioners expressed similar concerns, and struggled to separate the requested upzoning from the historic zoning element of the case. At the time, they were told that was possible, and they opted to support the Historic Landmark Commission recommendation but not the developer’s zoning request.

Rusthoven said that Peoples had agreed in writing not to protest historic zoning on the main home. If he does, it would constitute a valid petition, and a supermajority of Council would be required to deem the house historic.

As for the other four houses? Their demolition was approved, administratively. Rusthoven explained that the decision was made under the reasoning that on three separate occasions in the past, the Historic Landmark Commission had opted not to zone the three smaller houses historic.

Brinsmade told the Monitor that was true, but the fourth home at 1506 Waller had never been reviewed or approved for demolition. She also expressed concern and disappointment that her extensive research on the three other houses had not been included in the Historic Landmark Commission’s backup, even though the commission had requested that research during its January meeting.

Though the Monitor attempted to contact Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky about why the material was not included in the backup, he did not respond.

As for the current solution, Rusthoven told Council it was an attempt to get something for each side. The neighborhood will be able to preserve the main house, and the owner will be able to move forward with demolition of the four smaller houses.

“Everyone doesn’t get everything that they want, but I think both sides get what is most important to them,” said Rusthoven.

Image of the soon-to-be-demolished 807 East 16th Street courtesy of the city of Austin

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