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Lightsey 2 back at City Hall, again

Monday, June 29, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

A neighborhood push to landmark a house that will otherwise be demolished to make way for development fell flat at the Planning Commission last week.

Planning Commissioners voted 3-5 to designate the Lightsey-Russell House as a historic landmark, which is not enough for a recommendation. Chair Danette Chimenti and commissioners Jean Stevens and Nuria Zaragoza voted in favor. When the proposal goes before City Council, it can win approval only by a supermajority because the owner does not want the house to be designated historic.

The fight over preserving the main house on the Lightsey 2 tract, located at 1805 Lightsey Road, is just the latest battle in the war over this South Austin development. Neighbors have organized protests over tree removal and connectivity in the past, and they recently persuaded Council to pass an ordinance to ensure that the development’s connectivity is limited.

This time, neighbors showed up in their now-familiar yellow shirts with drone footage of the house and an extensive history of its first occupants to convince commissioners that the house should not be torn down.

Contrary to early appearances that neighbors might be amenable to demolition, neighbor Bryan King insisted that preservation was the goal. In previous discussions with developers, neighbors had shared drawings of what might be done with the property. In some, the house had been demolished with no mention of its historic status. However, those drawings were simply “what ifs,” said King. “Those are napkin sketches of possibilities.”

The developers argued that the house does not merit landmark status. Moreover, South Llano Strategies partner Glen Coleman pointed out that the “napkin sketch” had sent the project to the Environmental Board for a month. “That was a lot of investment made on that napkin suggestion. That was a really serious suggestion,” said Coleman. “These were serious suggestions by the neighborhood leaders who were in negotiations with us at that time.”

Commissioner Richard Hatfield said that, to him, the bid for historic zoning felt a little bit like a “bait and switch” by the neighborhood. He suggested that the change in tactic wasn’t something he supported.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky gave the history of the house, but in this case staff had no recommendation on the zoning change. Sadowsky explained to commissioners that it was possible to preserve a house without designating it as a historic landmark.

However, some commissioners argued for landmarking the 83-year-old house.

“I think the house is historically significant,” said Chimenti. “It seems to me that there is a way that the house can be preserved and the developer can get most of what they want out of the property. I think they can probably sell the house for a significant amount of money when it’s fixed up. I don’t think they stand to lose that much. The neighborhood stands to gain a lot by retaining a large portion of their history.”

Coleman told commissioners that they were struggling to keep the houses of Lightsey 2 in the mid-$300,000s. He said that time spent fighting over the development and the possibility of retaining a house instead of building three new units was making that difficult. He pointed out that the house, if preserved, would cost $800,000 or more.

“We are driving up the price of Austin. I appreciate (that) the Historic Landmark Commission wants to honor the history of what has come. But, as Planning Commissioners, I want you to think carefully about the history we are making,” said Coleman.

Though the neighborhood asked for a postponement, Planning Commissioners voted to move forward with the case. Coleman argued that the transition to a new Planning Commission could mean the case would be heard by commissioners who were unfamiliar with the extensive history of Lightsey 2, which he saw as a disadvantage.

Photo of the Lightsey-Russell House courtesy of the City of Austin.

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