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Council debates building demolition in Old West Austin

Friday, November 4, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council delayed a decision on a contentious historic preservation case Thursday after a property owner promised that he would not seek a permit to tear down the structure in the next week.

Zach Armstrong, who is seeking to demolish a fourplex he owns at 1618 Palma Plaza in Old West Austin, assured Mayor Steve Adler that he would allow Council members more time to decide whether they wanted to support a proposal by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo to designate the property a historic landmark.

Tovo, with the backing of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, is hoping to prevent the building’s demolition. The Historic Landmark Commission, which recently heard the case, was unable to vote to initiate historic zoning because not enough members of the commission were present at its meeting, a situation that Tovo hopes to remedy with a separate ordinance that she said she is still working on.

Tom Terkel, the agent representing Armstrong, urged Council to allow his client to move forward with his plans, pointing out that the city’s own historic preservation officer had concluded that the structure lacked the necessary historic associations to meet the criteria for historic designation.

Tovo pushed back on Terkel’s assessment, noting that Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky had praised the property and had only very reluctantly concluded that it did not meet the historic association criteria.

She recited a list of various people who had lived in the building, from a television repairman to a former writer for the Austin Daily Tribune, saying that their lives told the “story of Austin in the 1930s and ’40s.”

A number of West Austin residents spoke in favor of preserving the property, and Tere O’Connell, a longtime historic preservation advocate, said that the fourplex is “an excellent example of an older property that provides affordable housing and density” in addition to having architectural and historic value.

Armstrong, when asked by Council Member Greg Casar about the rent he charges for the units, called the affordability argument “ridiculous,” saying that he charged $1,300 for a 550-square-foot apartment.

Frank Harren, who often comments on development issues before Council, fumed about what he saw as “an abuse of the historic designation process as a vehicle to stop redevelopment and growth.” Holding up a copy of Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan, he told Council members that it was their duty to try to reduce sprawl by supporting development in the urban core.

“We’re talking about an old fourplex here,” he said.

Council Member Ora Houston, one of the sponsors of the resolution, did not appreciate that line of reasoning.

“I get really offended by the notion that if communities want to keep some of their built environment, they are anti-growth, or if they don’t want the density that another group thinks is appropriate,” she said later on.

Council Member Don Zimmerman also voiced offense, but with what he saw as city officials’ disregard for property rights. Citing a U.S. Supreme Court case, Kelo v. City of New London, in which the court ruled in favor of a municipality’s right to seize residences via eminent domain for the purpose of commercial redevelopment, Zimmerman warned preservation advocates that a city that prevents an owner from demolishing his property “for the community” could just as easily seize and demolish a private property for the public good.

“This sword can cut both ways,” he said.

Casar and Council Member Pio Renteria both signaled that they were conflicted about the case, and Casar suggested postponing the case so he could further assess the property’s historic significance.

The only problem with a postponement, others pointed out, was that in the absence of a Council resolution initiating a historic zoning case, the applicant could apply and obtain a demolition permit.

Jerry Rusthoven, acting assistant director of the Planning and Zoning Department, explained that if the property were listed as a “contributing structure” to the Old West Austin Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, the Historic Landmark Commission would be required to review the plans for the property if the owner sought a demolition. If it is not a contributing structure, however, the city would be required to grant the demolition permit upon request.

Further complicating things, Rusthoven noted that while the property is not listed as a contributing structure on the national register, Sadowsky and a person who has nominated the property to be added to the register “believe that was a mistake.”

Adler sought to resolve the issue by simply asking Armstrong and Terkel not to seek the permit in the next week.

The motion to postpone the case passed 6-4, with Council Member Delia Garza joining Adler, Casar, Renteria, Zimmerman and Gallo in support. Tovo, Houston and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen, all of whom were sponsors of the resolution, voted against.

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