Friday, June 12, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Council members sound off on historic district

The proposed Bluebonnet Hills preservation district took its first step forward at City Council on Thursday. But will it be its last?

After several hours of public testimony both for and against, Council voted to approve the district on first reading. The vote was 7-3, with Council members Ellen Troxclair, Don Zimmerman and Pio Renteria voting in opposition. Council Member Sheri Gallo was absent.

If that voting pattern holds, however, the district will not be approved. Currently, about 32 percent of the homeowners within Bluebonnet Hills are opposed to the district’s creation. Anything above 20 percent constitutes a valid petition. To pass something that has a valid petition against it, Council must approve it with a supermajority, or nine votes.

To make matters even more tenuous, some of those who voted in favor of the district only did so conditionally. Council Member Greg Casar, for example, indicated his support but said he would be thinking about the case over the July break. Likewise, Mayor Steve Adler said that he would be taking a hard look at the design standards over the break to see if there is some way to bridge the gap between the two opposing sides.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky stressed that the design standards are a “living document” and would not be set in stone if approved, but subject to review over time. Additionally, when the Planning Commission voted to recommend creation of the district, they also recommended creation of a neighborhood advisory committee that could provide ongoing insight into design standards in the future.

“We’re not viewing these houses as museum pieces,” said Sadowsky. “What we are doing is trying to set down standards that everyone in the district can live with that maintains the historic character of the district.”

If approved, the district would provide more protection against demolition, create design standards for new construction and offer property-tax incentives for rehabilitation of homes within the district.

Though some neighbors started work on a historic district that would encompass all of Travis Heights about a decade ago, by this point it has dwindled to 118109 buildings. Of those, 85 are considered historic. 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.

Those who oppose the district expressed concerns that new regulations would prohibit changes or require them to make repairs to their homes and diminish their property rights.

They found an ally in Council Member Don Zimmerman, who questioned the veracity of the petition of support, expressed concern about the added expense of upkeep in a historic preservation district and generally exhibited disdain for the type of houses that would be preserved.

“As a teenager, I spent many months of my summers remodeling, repairing and renovating those buildings. So they’re personal to me, and I don’t like them,” said Zimmerman.

Renteria said that he wouldn’t be able to support the measure, having gone through the process in his own neighborhood. He also said that he has dear friends who have lived in the area for generations and that he could not vote in favor of the district knowing their opposition.

But, like the approximately 52 percent of homeowners who support the district, some Council members spoke passionately in favor of its creation.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who is the representative for the District 9 neighborhood, made the motion to support the historic district. She said, ultimately, that it is in the best interest of the community to recognize the district as “a tool the community has embraced.”

She was joined in support by several of her peers, including Council Member Ora Houston.

“I know what happens to neighbors and the character of neighborhoods when developers come in and flip houses,” said Houston. “I think it’s important to preserve and have houses that reflect what that neighborhood looked like, even as we move forward and become big and innovative. … We have the opportunity to preserve a place in time.”

This post has been corrected to reflect the accurate number of buildings in the district. That figure is 109, not 118 as was originally stated.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

South Austin: South Austin is, very roughly, the portion of Austin south of Lady Bird Lake.

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