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Proposed preservation district hits a wall at Landmark Commission

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Historic Landmark Commission on Tuesday postponed action on recommending a historical district in Central Austin that scored significant support from its resident homeowners.

The punt came at the end of a lengthy and contentious discussion among the commissioners, the homeowners requesting the designation and Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.

Roughly 20 residents and their supporters kicked things off by extolling the virtues of Aldridge Place, a section of 138 properties north of the University of Texas campus. The proposed district’s boundaries would be Guadalupe Street on the west, Speedway Boulevard on the east, and West 30th and 34th streets to the south and north, respectively.

Several structures in Aldridge Place date back to the 19th century, although major development did not occur until 1912, when Lewis Hancock, a former mayor of Austin, platted it as a subdivision.

“Mr. Hancock envisioned a neighborhood that would provide a respite from the hustle and bustle for folks who worked downtown,” explained Rick Iverson, one of the applicants for the district.

Brandon Tucker told the commission that his family has lived on West 33rd Street since 2013. He noted the area’s architectural diversity, which includes examples of Craftsman, Tudor revival and Spanish eclectic.

“Residents and architects have had a tremendous freedom in the style of the architecture they choose. The result is that the majority of the homes built between 1910 and 1965 have withstood storms, floods and droughts. They’ve endured an era when living in the urban core wasn’t as desirable as it is today,” he said.

Roger Binkley, another applicant for the district, walked the commission through the outreach efforts made to secure support for the district. He said his team made three separate attempts to contact owners to notify them of the drive to create the district. Seventy-five percent responded, and of those respondents, 95 percent supported the effort.

Commissioner Arif Panju voiced his concern to Binkley about the 25 percent who did not respond.

“Well, it’s a little bit like a public election,” Binkley said. “People either vote or they don’t.”

“The difference with an election is you’re electing a representative for a time certain, and then you can vote them out,” Panju replied. “This is rezoning people’s property. And it comes with a whole slew of design standards that control everything from not enlarging your door and not enlarging your window, to where additions can be made. So it’s not like an election.”

Panju also questioned whether the design standards prescribed by the proposed district would preclude any changes in the Land Development Code that could come under the ongoing rewrite known as CodeNEXT. It’s anticipated that that process could potentially increase density throughout Austin’s single-family neighborhoods.

Panju suggested that the commission recommend a provision to allow CodeNEXT to supersede the proposed district, which is largely zoned for single-family homes although it does include some apartments, duplexes and granny flats. Panju’s idea drew a rebuke from Commissioner Blake Tollett.

“We seem to be legislating from the dais,” said Tollett. “You’re talking about something that may or may not occur in the future and may not be anytime soon. The CodeNEXT may just go out the window.”

Circling back to the homeowners who never provided input about the district’s creation, Commissioner David Whitworth asked if an opt-out could be provided.

Sadowsky told him that would not be possible.

“Some people are just plain not going to ever respond. And I think it’s unfair to hold a nomination hostage for somebody who has had three opportunities to respond to the questions, advice and recommendations and still have decided not to,” Sadowsky said, drawing applause from the district’s supporters.

Ultimately Tollett motioned to support the staff recommendation to create the district. With Whitworth and Panju’s opposition, the 5-2 vote failed to reach the necessary threshold for passage. A subsequent vote to postpone the item was approved unanimously.

The commission will take up the proposal again on Nov. 21.

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