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Something ventured, ‘nothing’ gained at historic commission

Wednesday, November 2, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

At their most recent meeting, Historic Landmark commissioners “accomplished nothing” for a 1932 fourplex known as the Palma Plaza Apartment House.

With only seven members present, commissioners were unable to garner an effective number of votes to move forward with historic zoning, release the demolition permit or even postpone the case. As a result, the demolition permit will eventually be released for the building, which is located at 1618 Palma Plaza, unless City Council moves forward with a separate resolution to initiate historic zoning on the property.

The unsatisfactory conclusion noticeably frustrated some commissioners and appears to have provoked a resolution that is on this week’s City Council agenda as well. In fact, because of an abstention, it wasn’t even possible to reach the required supermajority of seven votes to initiate historic zoning over the owner’s objections.

“Our attendance the last three (meetings) has been abysmal,” said Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou. “Two months ago we didn’t even make quorum. I don’t know what else to say to that. It’s not a good situation for our board to be in, and it does a disservice to everyone – both people for and against. It’s quite frustrating, actually.”

At the time the case was presented, commissioners Michelle Trevino, Arif Panju and Emily Reed were absent. Commissioner Tiffany Osburn abstained from the votes, and Council Member Pio Renteria does not have an appointment to the commission. The meeting ran almost until 1 am.

According to Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, the demolition permit will be released after plans for new construction are reviewed by the Historic Landmark Commission, as the building is located in the Old West Austin National Historic Register District.

Sadowsky said that the building is architecturally significant but lacks historic associations.

“It truly pains me. This has always been one of my favorite buildings in this part of the city,” he said. “It really stands out, because it is so unique. But when we are looking at the criteria for designation, and we have to look at historical associations – I’ve tried and tried and tried, and I cannot justify a landmark designation based on anything but the architecture.”

“It really struck me that a building like this is so rare in this neighborhood,” added Sadowsky. “And it really shows not only the diversity of housing types in the neighborhood, but this is a very rare example throughout the city. We have very few fourplexes. But we need to be able to show a little bit more than that.”

Maureen Metteauer, representing the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, said she was “a little surprised” to hear staff’s recommendation after a previous presentation that praised the property. “Somehow, in less than 30 days, it’s no longer worthy of that consideration. I want to know why, from a staff perspective, we went from believing its noncontributing status was a mistake to … we should not save this house.”

“To take this down and replace it with something new is forever going to alter the character of that part of Palma Plaza,” she said.

Tom Terkel, who is a principal with FourT Realty, spoke against the historic designation. He explained that his company had an option to acquire the property. He told the commission that the company intended to redevelop the property under the current zoning (Multi-Family Residence-Medium Density, or MF-3) and moved forward with the plan after seeing that it was not listed as a contributing structure to the historic district.

Terkel said that a review of the records had revealed a rather confusing situation. Research at the Austin History Center found four different surveys divided in half over whether or not the house was contributing. Further complicating the matter, two said the house was Spanish Revival, while two said it was Spanish Colonial architecture. However, in the end, Terkel pointed to the fact that on the National Register of Historic Places and the city website, 1618 Palma Plaza was not listed as a contributing structure.

John Nyfeler, an architect that reviewed the home for FourT Realty, pointed out that the building had undergone “significant alterations” over time, including installation of a new, flat, roof; new windows; a new porch; and siding that obscured the original exterior.

As a rebuttal, Metteauer explained that there are “numerous mistakes” in the records of historic districts, which are written by volunteers, and all of the changes to the home could be reversed.

Commissioner Terri Myers advocated for a postponement in order to allow the proponents of historic zoning more time to research the history of the house. She said that she had her own research she would like to share, but that motion did not pass. Instead, Myers pointed out that the fourplex did not just represent a rare property type in the city but a “milieu of people” who once settled the city.

“They represent a real departure from the single-family house as the ideal and the movement towards the professional, more sophisticated sort of class of single people,” said Myers. “I think this is a significant historic association.”

Commissioner David Whitworth, who supported initiating historic zoning at a prior meeting, had since spoken with those purchasing the property and learned that the plan proposed by the neighborhood was not feasible. Due to that information, combined with the lack of recommendation from staff, he said, he could no longer support historic zoning.

“This has been a really interesting conversation, and I think the neighbors have made some really great points. I love this old fourplex. I wish I could just vote on that,” said Whitworth.

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