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Landmark Commission blesses Castle Hill change

Friday, July 31, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

A Castle Hill development delayed by bureaucracy got some encouraging news at the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday.

Historic Landmark commissioners voted unanimously to recommend modification of the Castle Hill Local Historic District’s preservation plan and design standards. Previously, the standards imposed city compatibility standards within the district. The proposed amendment clarifies that the compatibility standards do not apply to developments that have an approved Certificate of Appropriateness from the Historic Landmark Commission.

In June, the Board of Adjustment voted to postpone a case that would only change the setbacks for the Stonewall project at 614 and 618 Blanco St. At the time, then-chair Jeff Jack suggested that a modification to the design standards might be a more appropriate route. Developer Arbol Lindo LLC, represented by Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle, is now taking that tack.

Though commissioners were asked to weigh in on a general change to the standards, the Stonewall remained the focus of their deliberations. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the Historic Landmark Commission had unanimously supported the project, given that it fits into the neighborhood and meets all the criteria of the local historic district. At the time, both the commissioners and the developer believed that the project qualified for a historic landmark compatibility exemption and was in compliance with city code.

However, late into the process, city staff revealed that was not the case. Without a variance or changes to the design standards, the project cannot move forward.

Suttle explained that his client had worked with the commission, historic district and neighborhood association to come up with the plan to build six duplexes and had widespread neighborhood support for the design.

As one of the people who helped bring the Castle Hill Local Historic District into being, Laura Kelso spoke in favor of the modification. She argued that the compatibility standards within the design standards were “really an oversight” and the result of inexperienced people writing the standards without much city guidance. She asked the commission to consider revising those standards now.

“I’d just like to say that the spirit behind the local historic district was precisely about promoting projects like the Stonewall. It’s the kind of thoughtful urban infill that we were looking for as a neighborhood,” Kelso said.

She added that she knew of only one opponent to the current project.

That person, Ann Manassero, was present to speak against the modification. Manassero owns the property next door to the project and said that if the compatibility standards were removed, the project would “completely engulf (her) property.”

“It will stick out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood, without any room for trees. Over time, this is never going to look like an established neighborhood,” said Manassero.

Though Manassero argued that an exception for one property should not be made, Suttle explained that the modification was to the district legislation. He also pointed out that Manassero’s property was available as a short-term rental, though she told the commission and the Board of Adjustment that someday she hoped to retire there.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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