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Stone cottage demolition leaves confusion behind

Tuesday, August 18, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Over the weekend, James Retherford was arrested for criminal trespass while trying to stop the demolition of a stone cottage in Bouldin Creek.

He was unsuccessful, and the house at 901 Dawson Road is no longer one of the nine intact stone cottages in the neighborhood. The news of the cottage’s demise is especially crushing to neighborhood advocates who were bolstered by a Historic Landmark Commission vote to initiate historic zoning on the house in June and misled by a postponement at the commission in July.

Though the delay at the July 27 meeting was framed as a postponement, the action amounted to a de facto release of the demolition permit. From the time a case appears on a Historic Landmark Commission agenda, commissioners have 75 days to take action on a permit — by either allowing it to go forward or by voting to declare the structure a historic landmark. In this case, time ran out on Aug. 1, and the promise to discuss the case at a specially called meeting on Aug. 10 proved hollow. The demolition permit was released on Aug. 4.

When he spoke to the Austin Monitor on Monday, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky apologized for the error.

“We honestly thought that we had the time to postpone it,” said Sadowsky. “As it turned out, we did not.”

As for the postponement, Sadowsky explained that he didn’t have a choice.

In order to have moved forward with historic zoning against the owner’s wishes, a supermajority of eight commissioners would have had to vote in favor of the change. But July’s meeting was the first under the 10-1 system, and three commissioners were absent and two had yet to be appointed. That left six commissioners in attendance — two less than the number required to approve historic zoning, even if they were to vote unanimously.

Even if the Historic Landmark Commission had the opportunity to vote on the designation again and it elected to move forward with the rezoning, Sadowsky said that he didn’t think it would have made it through the Planning Commission and City Council.

“I don’t think on a case like this particular one that there would be a justification for landmark designation,” said Sadowsky. He explained that even if the owners had sought designation on their own, he would have told them that they didn’t meet the requirements.

Sadowsky continued, “If the house is not a landmark, it’s not a landmark. Believe me, I sympathize with the neighborhood. I love Bouldin Creek. I think there’s incredible architecture, and incredible history.

“But we need to take a different approach with a neighborhood like Bouldin. Or any neighborhood. We can’t be doing this one house at a time. We need to be looking at historic districts, if that’s what the neighborhood wants to do.”

While that might be a good course of action for the future, Bouldin Creek neighbors who had hoped to save the Dawson Road home remain a bit confused.

Ellen Richards spoke at the Aug. 10 specially called meeting. She explained that neighbors, believing the case was still active, had gone to the Austin History Center and worked with staff to research the home and make a case for its historic status.

“Had we realized this had not been on (the Aug. 10) agenda, we would have taken further steps to intervene and provide the research at an earlier date,” said Richards. “I know that there is nothing I can do at this point. … However, I do want to express concern with how this case has been handled.”

Richards urged reflection on the case in order to prevent similar situations in the future. She suggested an evaluation of the preservation process at the city to “ensure that it is transparent and straightforward” in a way that encouraged concerned neighbors to get involved and allowed them to do so.

Sadowsky assured Richards that his staff was not focusing energy on wealthier parts of the city, which have homes with more apparent historical associations.

“We are not focusing our attention on Tarrytown and Pemberton,” said Sadowsky. “Those areas are not under the same threat and attack that the smaller, closer-in areas (are). … Rest assured, we are devoting our attention to all parts of the city. We don’t play favorites.

“We are working very, very hard, usually way more than 40 hours a week, for all of us to try and do what we can to try and preserve the character of this city while so much of it is changing so quickly.”

Photo of the recently demolished home courtesy of the city of Austin.

This story has been edited since publication to correct a typo.

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