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Midcentury modern home sparks modern debate

Monday, September 7, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Everyone seemed to agree that it is a lovely house. But that wasn’t nearly enough to quell a debate on historic tax abatements that overwhelmed a West Austin historic zoning case at the Historic Landmark Commission last week.

The homeowner, Pierre Filardi, was seeking historic landmark designation for his residence at 3941 Balcones Drive. As he explained, it was once slated for demolition but had escaped the fate of the midcentury modern home next door, which has been replaced with a 7,000-square-foot Tuscan mansion.

“There are a lot of midcentury moderns in Austin, but this one is just way out there as a beautiful example,” said Filardi. “… I walked into this home and had a vision, within a second or two, of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin standing there in tuxedos and martinis, saying, ‘Welcome to the party.’ The home has that sort of impact on anyone that sees it.”

However, after weathering the discussion on the dais, Filardi asked for a postponement until September, temporarily dodging a battle that was about much more than his home.

Though Commissioner Arif Panju acknowledged it was a “beautiful house,” he also called for a larger conversation about guiding principles for landmark designations. He suggested that, in the interim, the commission should “congratulate (Filardi) for his voluntary preservation” and consider granting the historic preservation without the tax abatement.

“This house is knocking on the door of a million-dollar appraised value. … The homeowner is energized, he’s appreciating everything that this house offers from a historical standpoint,” said Panju. “I just have a problem with offering a tax abatement that over the next 10 years totals $85,000 to one homeowner. … You’re running into a situation where the public policy incentives that are in here are completely out of whack with the institutional goal the city of Austin has to preserve history.”

Commissioner Terri Myers disagreed with Panju’s stance. She said that, as historic landmark commissioners, it was their obligation to advocate for preservation, and the question of the tax abatement was something best handled by City Council and other people.

“Our charge is to see if this house meets the criteria, and it does,” said Myers, who received applause for her comments.

Panju was not one of those applauding Myers. He disagreed with her take, saying, “Frankly, I do think it’s our mandate to be good stewards – no matter whether you are a Council member or a commissioner – of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

He continued, “I’m not going to remain silent on an issue like this. It’s been going on like this for way too long. And perhaps the last Historic Landmark Commission would rubber-stamp these things, but the rubber-stamp pad is going to run out of ink soon.”

Though Panju drew attention to how tax abatements might negatively impact affordability in the city, others argued that it could be seen as an affordability tool.

Commissioner Emily Reed pointed out that although the house was valued at almost $1 million, “unfortunately, that’s not something you can get a lot of house for” in Austin. She said the tax abatement helped encourage preservation of the home, which could easily be torn down for a larger, more expensive house.

Preservation Austin Executive Director Kate Singleton was asked by Panju for her “strongest argument” in favor of the tax abatement. She explained that, for the program as a whole, the program incentivized people to retain historic properties in the city.

“It does speak to affordability,” said Singleton, “because it’s available to any property owner who designates their property on a local level. … It’s to help people to keep these houses, and to stay in them. It does help with affordability.”

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