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Littlefield and Dabney-Horne homes to be preserved together

Friday, April 8, 2016 by Jack Craver

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo could not bring herself to support moving the historic Dabney-Horne house away from its birthplace at 507 West 23rd St.

“Looking at the site again was part of it,” she said Thursday as City Council deliberated on a deal struck between developer David Kanne and preservation advocates, in which Kanne agreed to move the house to 901 Shoal Cliff Court, next door to another historic property at 903 Shoal Cliff Court, where legendary University of Texas track coach Clyde Littlefield once lived. The Dabney-Horne house, built in 1883, was home to a UT professor, Robert Lewis Dabney.

Tovo nevertheless applauded Kanne for some of the conditions he accepted in exchange for being able to build a student housing complex at the current site of the Dabney-Horne house.

Not only did Kanne agree to rehabilitate the Littlefield house, but he also accepted a number of last-minute amendments proposed by Tovo specifying that the two tracts where the Littlefield and Dabney-Horne houses will be located will be considered a “unified development” that cannot be subdivided in the future or be subject to any changes that do not meet historic preservation guidelines established by the U.S. secretary of the interior. In addition, the developer agreed to initiate a historic zoning case to get historic zoning for the future site of the Dabney-Horne house.

The city’s historic preservation office has recommended the deal, reasoning that the Dabney-Horne house will fit in better at its new location than at its current site, which has been increasingly surrounded by tall apartment buildings oriented toward students.

And yet, Tovo said, she was not “quite there” on the deal. Not only did the property derive much of its historic value from the context of its current location, she said, but its proximity to the UT campus allowed thousands of students who regularly walk past it to get a glimpse of what that neighborhood looked like a century ago, she explained.

Council Member Ora Houston concurred. “I think it says we’re trying to put the history of that area out of view,” she said of the plan to move the house.

But others were satisfied by the deal. Council Member Greg Casar emphasized the importance of striking a balance between historic preservation and the need to add housing stock to accommodate the demand of a rapidly growing city.

“I think the pros outweigh the cons in this case,” he said.

In keeping with the University Neighborhood Overlay in which the Dabney-Horne property is located, 10 percent of the units in the new apartment complex will be reserved for tenants with incomes at or below 60 percent of the area median family income. The overlay also mandates that the developer either provide an additional 10 percent of the units to those at 50 percent MFI or pay a fee-in-lieu to the University District Neighborhood Housing Trust Fund. Kanne has indicated that he will opt for the latter.

Council Member Don Zimmerman, who often invokes his upbringing in San Antonio and his affection for the Alamo during political debates, conceded that he would be “pretty ticked off” if a developer sought to replace the 180-year-old symbol of the Texas Revolution with, say, an IMAX theater. But the Dabney-Horne house did not quite rise to that level of historic significance, he said.

In addition, Zimmerman said, while he knew of many other fellow Texas A&M alums in Austin who would prefer that UT students vacate the city entirely, he argued that it was best if student housing be as close to campus as possible.

The deal involved two separate votes. The first, which removed the restrictive covenant on the current site of the Dabney-Horne house, was approved 9-2, with Tovo and Houston voting no.

Council then voted to approve historic zoning for the Littlefield house property at 903 Shoal Cliff Court.

Casar was particularly excited to preserve Littlefield, noting that he first came to Austin as a teenager to compete in the Texas Relays, the annual track and field competition started by Littlefield in 1925.

Houston was less impressed by the legacy of the house, pointing out that for much of the history of the relays, “people who looked like me were unable to participate.”

Indeed, it was not until 1956, five years before the end of Littlefield’s 41-year tenure as track coach, that UT admitted its first black students. And it took many years after the university officially desegregated for its sports teams to begin including nonwhites. In fact, the 1969 Longhorns were the last all-white college football team to win a national championship.

The proposal to grant historic zoning passed easily, with only Houston and Council Member Pio Renteria in opposition, while Council Member Ellen Troxclair abstained.

Photo: Littlefield house, 903 Shoal Cliff Court

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