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East Austin demo spurs talk of moratoriums and trust

Friday, April 29, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

There has been a lot of talk recently about a moratorium on demolitions in East Austin. On Monday, that talk surfaced once again, this time around a proposed demolition that will be put on hold for the time being while Historic Landmark commissioners look into whether the home should be designated historic.

The Historic Preservation Office supports historic zoning for the 1901 home at 1112 E. Third St. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said his recommendation is based on the home’s intact architecture and the fact that it tells “a very fascinating story about the changes in East Austin.” He explained that over time, the house has seen residents who have illustrated the demographic shifts in the neighborhood, from middle-class Anglos, to lower-class Anglos, to residents of Mexican descent.

“This house has seen all of it,” said Sadowsky. “I think it’s worth a little more consideration.”

The Historic Landmark Commission agreed with that assessment, voting 7-3 to initiate the historic zoning process, with Commissioners David Whitworth, Arif Panju and Alexander Papavasiliou dissenting.

If the home is zoned historic, the designation will prevent the new homeowners from moving forward with their plans to construct three homes on three adjacent lots. Homeowner Paul Kim told the commission that he had partnered with his friends to build their “dream houses” on the lots. Angell Tsang, another one of the homeowners, further explained that the three families had, in total, five children under the age of 5, and they had planned to let those children grow up together.

“We know that it is hard for young families to get housing on the east side, mostly due to affordability. … I think everybody’s goal in Austin is just to have better density and more families in this area,” said Tsang.

While that perspective might have swayed some commissioners, it also provoked a discussion about whether the future plans for the homes, and the kids, should be taken into consideration and at face value.

Amy Thompson, chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team’s committee on historic preservation, spoke in opposition to the demolition. She said that she didn’t want to be dismissive of the three families’ testimony, but she offered an alternate perspective.

“I definitely sympathize with hopes and dreams for what you want to do with your property, but as preservationists on the east side, we don’t really have the luxury of taking that at face value,” she said. “We’ve heard the exact same story so many times, by people who actually were just developing the properties for investments.”

That sentiment was seconded by Commissioner Blake Tollett, who noted that “good intentions can change overnight,” and Chair Mary Jo Galindo, who said that she had also witnessed dishonest testimony before the commission.

“I think it behooves us to be skeptical,” said Galindo. “I don’t want to crush your dreams. … But our charge is to consider historic preservation.”

Panju said that he needed to take the intentions of the applicants at face value, just as he had to take the neighborhood association’s intentions at face value “regardless of the fact that it appears they want to stop everything.”

“People matter. … To ignore the applicants and just look at the house does a disservice to the fact that we even have this process,” he said.

Gwen O’Barr also spoke in opposition to the demolition. She noted that the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team had voted unanimously to oppose the demolition of the home in addition to voting for a more sweeping moratorium on demolitions in East Austin until a historic survey has been completed. She told the commission that City Council members Pio Renteria and Ora Houston were currently working on a resolution to do just that.

Phil Thomas, who is the chair of the preservation committee of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association, told the commission that the neighborhood association had also “overwhelmingly” voted in favor of both initiating historic zoning and placing a moratorium on demolitions.

“The winds are changing here,” said Thomas. “The 1980s Anglo-dominated city government formula of historic preservation … doesn’t work anymore on the east side.”

Of course, underneath this discussion is the debate about whether the house is truly historic.

Jeremy Vincik, with Levitas Modern Homes, is the party seeking a demolition permit for the home, and he said that his own background in historic preservation led him to determine that the house is “very old, but it is not historic.”

Right now the house currently sits across two smaller lots. Vincik explained that he would be able to develop the lots under the small-lot amnesty infill tool because his permit had been submitted prior to Council’s recent change to that rule.

Vincik said that in the past few weeks, the families had looked for another property to purchase but that “that had become a challenge in itself,” as vacant properties either weren’t for sale or were too small and on the market for “way too much money.”

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