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Landmark Commission’s first case reveals deeper concerns

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

An ideological split and a skeleton crew of a commission have left the landmark status of an East Austin home in limbo for now.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky “wholeheartedly recommended” historic zoning for the residence at 2005 Hamilton Ave., which was once home to one of Austin’s first African-American doctors and his wife, who helped found the George Washington Carver Museum.

“I have been waiting for a long time on an application for this house,” said Sadowsky. “If I have ever brought any case worthy of landmark designation to any commission in the past – this one beats that one.”

The home was the first historic zoning case considered by the new Historic Landmark Commission. At the commission’s first meeting on Monday night, the home was caught in the crossfire of several absences, the fact that two commissioners have yet to be appointed, and Commissioner Arif Panju’s issues with historic landmarking in general. As a result, commissioners opted to postpone the case to Aug. 10.

Initially, the commission attempted to approve the historic zoning case, but because only six members of the 11-member commission were present, Panju’s lone vote in opposition kept it from moving forward.

Panju said he would be voting against the zoning change out of principle and that it was time to review historic landmarking in Austin.

Panju explained, “I have a guiding principle, and I am going to exercise it consistently. This property is in no need of rehabilitation. It looks great. It has young homeowners, they are energized, and the last thing they need is a fat tax break. … We have a lot of landmarks, and I have to be more discerning.”

Commissioner Blake Tollett said that he agreed with the idea that tax abatements could use more scrutiny, but he said that the discussion about the East Austin house “was not the proper forum.”

“I would love to have that discussion – if there should be some sort of limit. … But that’s a different discussion for a different time,” said Tollett.

The house in question was built by Dr. Charles Yerwood and his wife, Ada Marie DeBlanc Simond, in 1939.

At the time, explained Sadowsky, Yerwood was one of a handful of African-American physicians in the city. He earned his medical degree in 1907 and practiced medicine during segregation, when most African-American doctors could not see white patients and were denied modern medical services.

Among his other accomplishments, Yerwood was an advocate for improvements in the treatment of tuberculosis and served as secretary and treasurer of the Lone Star Medical, Dental, and Pharmaceutical Association for over 20 years.

After her husband’s death in 1940, DeBlanc Simond began her own career in public health and traveled across the state educating people about nutrition, sanitation, disease prevention and safety. She also worked with volunteers to form community health organizations.

Later, in the 1970s, she worked to promote Austin’s African-American history. According to the Historic Preservation Office staff report, she wrote a series of children’s books with stories of African-American family life in the early 1900s, contributed articles to scholarly journals and co-founded the W.H. Passon Historical Society and the George Washington Carver Museum.

The home’s current owner, Catherine Lucchesi, initiated the historic zoning application with her husband. She told commissioners that she hoped to honor the family’s contributions and “preserve a piece of integral architecture” in the neighborhood. She purchased the home more than a year ago and has lived in it for about three months after completing renovations.

Panju said that he noticed property taxes on the house were currently about $10,000, and the tax abatement would be about $6,000 each year. Of that, about $1,750 is the city’s portion of taxes.

“That’s a lot of money. A lot of us pay a lot of money in property taxes, unfortunately, in Austin. … It seems like a significant tax break,” said Panju. “Austin has nearing 600 historical landmarks. To put that into context, a city like Nashville – which is very similar to Austin in many ways – has close to 50, without tax breaks. I’m concerned that we keep adding to the 600 number without really reviewing what is the guiding principle here.

“At which point do we stop handing out tax credits to folks who want to say that their house is historic?” asked Panju. “This is a significant tax break at a time when affordability is at the top of the list for so many Austinites that don’t get a chance to do this.”

Sadowsky responded to the query, saying, “I would hate for any of us to be short-sighted in designating houses as historic landmarks. This is a tool the city has employed for 41 years now, and very, very successfully. The tax benefits are something that is a constant cause for concern. Every Council that has come through in my tenure of 15 years has got concerns with the tax benefits. …

“But, the fact remains, we are not just doing this for today. We are doing this for the future. Designating a house as a historic landmark now protects it for years and generations to come.”

Commissioner David Whitworth said that it was “nice” that the historic landmarking was not against the owner’s wishes, and the house seemed like a good candidate for zoning. He said that Sadowsky’s assertion that the house was one of the most important he had seen carried a lot of weight with him.

“There are other ways outside of the landmark commission to bring affordability back to Austin,” said Whitworth. “I think that the tax question can come up in other places, hopefully. … In terms of the historic appropriateness of the home, it does seem worthy.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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