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West Line historic zoning battle extended once again

Thursday, October 6, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

In a somewhat surprising turn of events, a lack of consensus over a West Line home kicked off the historic zoning process at the Historic Landmark Commission’s most recent meeting.

The owner of a 1915 bungalow at 812 Theresa Ave. is seeking permission to tear it down. But a combination of neighborhood opposition, history and the fact that it is located in the West Line National Register Historic District has encouraged a number of people to fight to save it – including local preservationists and state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, a former resident.

Commissioners last took up the case in August, when it was ultimately postponed following two split votes over release of the demolition permit. That split remained on the dais this go-around as well, though after a few attempts at a resolution, the commissioners ultimately voted 6-1 to initiate historic zoning, with Commissioner David Whitworth voting in opposition and commissioners Arif Panju, Emily Reed and Alex Papavasiliou absent.

Commissioner Terri Myers moved to initiate historic zoning due to the home’s architectural merit, community value and associations with the Wattinger family. That motion initially died for lack of a second, but it was resurrected after a vote to release the demolition permit ended in a draw. “This is something that I feel is very significant. It’s an important property,” she said. “I think to not look at protecting and preserving this building would be a dereliction of our duties as commissioners.

“I would like to say that the condition of the house is not a criteria. Our charge, as a commission, it to protect and preserve historic resources, and this is a historic resource,” said Myers.

Whitworth explained that staff’s recommendation made his decision to release the demolition permit easier. “It’s a neat house from a neat time, but I think that it’s unreasonable to expect this from the property owner,” he said.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said he was “not thrilled” to recommend that the demolition move forward but that, given the fact that restoration would be “prohibitively expensive,” he didn’t really have a choice.

“Don’t get me wrong, this is a wonderful house. This is a very rare example of a story-and-a-half bungalow,” he said. “Unfortunately, we just have to deal with reality here.”

Sadowsky acknowledged that several people had already testified that the house could be saved, but, he said, “according to the owner of the house, it’s just not feasible” due to the cost.

“The fact remains, the house was left to deteriorate by the last tenants and the last owners, and it deteriorated for a long time. Windows were left open, doors were left open, the elements got in, animals got in,” he said.

Metcalfe Wolff Stuart & Williams LLP agent Michele Rogerson Lynch, who is representing the owner, noted that it was her fourth time visiting the commission about the demolition permit, which was filed in November 2015. She explained that they had looked into relocating the house but had found numerous issues with heritage trees, width of the street and power lines (in what some might consider a surprising show of foresight), and it would require variances from the city. She also showed estimates for restoration of the house, which she said would cost $400,000, given the fact that they are not builders themselves.

“Everything is so damaged that we would have to re-create it and essentially make it look like it used to,” said Lynch.

Lynch also said that she did not feel that the necessary criteria would be met for an individual historic designation – which is what would be needed to save the house. Lynch said that the owner did not yet know what he was going to develop on the land, but she noted that whatever he did decide would have to return to the commission because it is part of a historic district.

Maureen Metteauer, who is a member of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, said that the group opposes the demolition permit. She told the commission that she knows of offers to restore the house for $300,000, as well as offers to buy the house. She also suggested that the house could be moved to another part of the lot, leaving part of it available for development. She told the commission that the neighborhood association would support subdivision so that could happen.

“I suspect that the owner would really like to demo this house and do a development, and the fact that they haven’t presented what is going in place of this house … gave us all pause,” Metteauer said. “We are losing one right after another in our neighborhood, and we actually have a historic (district) in our neighborhood. We have two of them, and we have a National Register District. And the rate at which the demos are happening is really unprecedented.”

Although the commission initiated historic zoning on the house, a change in zoning over the owner’s opposition would have to be approved by a supermajority of the commission and, ultimately, City Council.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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