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Council moves to change demolition rules

Tuesday, June 28, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, City Council approved a resolution that could change how civic buildings are demolished in Austin.

The resolution, which was sponsored by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, could require all demolition permits for civic buildings that are 50 years or older to have a public hearing.

Council voted to approve the resolution in a vote of 9-2, with Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair voting in opposition.

At the moment, the city’s historic preservation officer can either send the demolition permits through the boards and commissions process or approve them administratively, with no public hearing.

Tovo pointed to the recent demolition of the Mt. Sinai Baptist Church as an example of a demolition permit being released without review by the Historic Landmark Commission, as well as the potential demolition of St. Annie’s African Methodist Episcopal Church and Goodwill Baptist Church.

“We need immediate action,” said Tovo.

“There are some in our community, and I count myself among them, who felt that a structure of that cultural significance ought to have at least received a review by the Historic Landmark Commission,” said Tovo. “We have a situation in some of our older neighborhoods where there are structures right now that are threatened with demolition.”

Zilker resident David King spoke in support of the change, which he said would allow Austinites to weigh in on demolitions before buildings are torn down.

“When (buildings) are gone, a piece of us goes away as well,” said King. “Our memories, our culture and our history. And I think it’s worth spending a little time to get some public input on that before we make the decision just to scrape it and demolish it.”

Zimmerman said he appreciated King’s input but affirmed that he was a strong proponent of property rights and disagreed with the premise that the resolution would be closing a loophole. Instead, he categorized the existing regulations as “things people fought and died for.”

A proposed amendment from Council Member Sheri Gallo that would preclude some of the 46 categories of civic uses was not embraced. Tovo pointed out that there were places, like the Austin State Hospital, that had historic buildings that were not landmarked and urged retaining the general language for the time being, saving those more specific questions for the code amendment process.

Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department said that staff would be bringing back such a list as a code amendment and that this would go through the normal boards and commissions process.

Gallo’s amendment failed in a vote of 3-8, with only Gallo, Zimmerman and Troxclair voting in its favor.

The resolution also asks for a re-examination of how the city defines “community value,” which is one of the criteria that can be used to determine whether a building is a historic landmark. Tovo said that she was specifically interested in seeing whether that definition could be broadened.

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