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Questions circle East Austin demolition

Friday, October 30, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

A skeptical Historic Landmark Commission voted to initiate historic zoning on an East Austin house this week, despite the objections of the owner, who told a story that some commissioners had trouble swallowing.

In the words of Commissioner Blake Tollet, “Something’s wrong here.”

Commissioners voted 6-2 to initiate historic zoning with Commissioners Alex Papavasiliou and Arif Panju voting in opposition. Commissioners Michelle Trevino and Grace McKenzie were absent. Council Member Delia Garza has not yet appointed anyone to the commission.

Previously, developers and owners MX3 Homes had sought a permit for relocation of the home at 1611 Walnut Ave., but they have since withdrawn that application and are now seeking permission to demolish the building. The Historic Preservation Office is recommending historic zoning for the home.

MX3 Homes project manager Henry Juarez explained that the existing home was over the property line and too close to a home they had recently built on the adjacent lot. He claimed that because of that encroachment, the city would not let them move the house.

A city spokesperson told the Austin Monitor that this assertion was not true and confirmed both that no application for a relocation permit had been filed and that no relocation permit had been denied. The only permit the owners have applied for is a demolition permit.

Even if they were permitted to move the house to bring it into compliance, Juarez said, they would “probably tear it down, just for safety reasons” if there were any doubts about its structural integrity after the move. However, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that moving the house onto a new foundation would only strengthen it.

Agent Hector Avila, who was representing MX3 Homes, told the commission that he already had plans for a new house on the site of the house the developers hoped to demolish. He said the new house would have a porch similar to the older home, and he offered to put up a plaque commemorating the Coleman family, who lived in the home for almost 60 years.

Tollet moved to initiate historic zoning on the house, which will give the commission more time to understand what, exactly, is going on.

“I want to specifically do this so we can get some questions answered. I don’t feel like we have what we need to have in front of us. … I think we need to get to the bottom of it,” said Tollet. “This is not right.”

Sadowsky said that the house not only fit the criteria for architectural significance, but also for historical associations because of the significance of the Coleman family in the Chestnut neighborhood. Sadowsky also asserted that the home met the “community value” criterion for historic designation because it had long been a place where children in the community would spend time in the afternoon. “Mrs. Coleman was also helping to keep these children off the streets,” said Sadowsky. “I believe it does have community value.”

Amenity Applewhite, secretary for the Chestnut Addition Neighborhood Association, broke down in tears reading a letter that recounted the eviction of the house’s previous tenant. Bertha Price lived in the house from 1992 until her eviction last year, after which she temporarily slept on a park bench in the neighborhood. The letter, written by neighborhood resident Tony Velasco, explained that the house remained a center for the community into the 21st century, hosting school fundraisers, church events and porch gatherings.

Cavan Merski, chair of the Chestnut Neighborhood Plan contact team, also spoke in favor of the historic designation. He explained that he was speaking on behalf of more than 80 people in the neighborhood, and they had been working on the project with the developer for about eight months.

Merski said that they had explored alternatives – and supported a variance that allowed the developer to build to the maximum floor-to-area ratio on the lot without having to go before a commission. However, MX3 Homes subsequently built a home too close to the older home, and now it must be moved.

“We’re still open to pursuing any variance that could save the structure, but at this point, we’ve been through several agreements that the applicant has reneged upon, so we’re somewhat hesitant to pursue any other course than historic landmark status,” said Merski.

“I would implore you not to let the significance – both architecturally and to the community – of this structure be vanquished when it doesn’t need to be,” he said.

Though staff estimated that the house was built in 1925, Commissioner Terri Myers guessed that the house was “much older” and said that her experience suggested it was probably built in 1910 or 1915.

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