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In East Austin, another demolition

Thursday, August 6, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

East Austin will soon say goodbye to yet another home built in the early 1900s.

At last week’s Historic Landmark Commission meeting, commissioners voted to release a demolition permit for the house at 1613 Canterbury St. Commissioners Terri Myers, Grace McKenzie and Michelle Trevino were absent.

Mike Chibib, who is one of the owners of the house, said he and his wife were taking the process seriously. He told the commission that a city inspector said that he would not issue a Certificate of Occupancy for the house, because it was a life-safety hazard. Part of that, he said, was a second-story addition that was not built to code, and the estimate for removing it and putting it back on would be about $200,000.

The house was built more than 100 years ago — in 1908. Since the last meeting when commissioners postponed the case, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky was able to inspect the house further and saw that beneath the vinyl siding, there is deteriorating wood siding. As for the history of the house, he told commissioners that it was most likely occupied by a carpenter and contractors, and is “really part of the history of East Austin.”

“What is important to East Austin may not be important in Tarrytown, or Pemberton, or one of the wealthier neighborhoods, because they have completely different histories. We have to look at these houses in their own environment and in their own context, and this is part of the context of East Austin,” said Sadowsky.

Sadowsky also noted that, given the magnitude of change going on in the neighborhood right now, the city should be “extremely sensitive about demolitions” there. Even so, said Sadowsky, the city should release the demolition permit for this particular house because he could not recommend it as a landmark. He expressed hope that the demolition would play out as a “win-win,” as the new owners seriously considered preserving the front of the house as part of their new construction.

Gwen O’Barr told the commission that she has been surprised by how much has been demolished in her neighborhood since she moved there from Bastrop over two years ago. She explained that her own house, just down the street, had been saved and is now a “beautiful home that fits the area.”

“We know that things can be saved,” said O’Barr. “In my opinion, this commission can stop this kind of destruction by recognizing valuable, savable old structures that don’t necessarily meet the high standards of the historic designation and tax reduction. These (are) the homes of working people in this town. … People are watching the community being destroyed and demolished around them.”

O’Barr said that she had recently become the co-chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team land use committee. She explained that one of the goals of the neighborhood plan is to encourage the retention of neighborhood character through houses like the one at 1613 Canterbury St.

Though commissioners voted unanimously to release the demolition permit, Commissioner Arif Panju commended O’Barr for speaking up.

“I think engaging in advocacy in the court of public opinion is a highly effective thing, and persuasion is something that I’m a big fan of. …Persuasion is very powerful, and doing it consistently, and principally — whatever side you are on of historic designation — does have a ripple effect,” said Panju.

“You will persuade others, and others will voluntarily also engage in preservation,” he continued. “Although the battle is not always won when you come up to a microphone, advocacy should not end when the buzzer sounds.”

Acting Chair Mary Jo Gallindo encouraged O’Barr to work toward creation of a local historic district with her neighbors. She explained that it was a way to preserve homes that contribute to local historic character, though they may not warrant individual historic landmarking.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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