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Planning Commission plays Historic Landmark Commission in demolition appeal case

Monday, February 27, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

In the first case of its kind, the Planning Commission, acting in place of the Historic Landmark Commission, denied an appeal of demolition permits released in July.

Property owner D & L Rent Properties LP originally filed for demolition of two houses at 1207 and 1209 W 22½ St. on April 20, with plans to build larger housing structures. The commission released the demolition permits for the two houses, both estimated to be around 90 years old, at its July 25 meeting. The item had been pulled from the consent agenda for discussion at the beginning of that meeting, but by the time the item was up at 1:25 a.m., no one from the neighborhood remained to discuss it, so the commission voted unanimously to transfer it back to the consent agenda.

Olivia Ruiz, a member of the West University Neighborhood Association who lives within 500 feet of the properties, wrote a letter to Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, dated Aug. 5, requesting that an appeal be filed.

At the Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 14, Sadowsky acknowledged that a form had been received from Ruiz stating her strong objection to the case by the department, but that strangely it had not been dated. Sadowsky said that though it was their general practice, this particular document had not been date-stamped “for some reason.”

Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd explained that before hearing the case, the commission must first determine whether the appellant had standing. “The key issue is was there some form of written testimony provided at the public hearing registering the appellant’s objection,” he said.

Commissioner Trinity White said that if the city could not prove that the original form was not filed on time, then the commission had to grant standing. “I think we need to give the appellant the benefit of the doubt,” she said. The commission unanimously agreed to reopen the public hearing.

Ruiz made the argument that the two houses, taken together with surrounding structures, represent a “Spanish eclectic” style that defined the history of the neighborhood. “That is our character,” she said. “When anybody thinks about West University Neighborhood, that is what we stand for, and we want to continue to stand for that.”

Sadowsky explained that while the two houses are part of an area that could apply for a historic district designation, on their own they are not significant enough in their historic association to be qualified for landmark status. Also, they are in disrepair. “I wish we could have designated these houses as historic landmarks, if (for no other reason) than to preserve this neighborhood,” he said. “But that’s not the criteria that the (HLC) has to work with.”

Cater Joseph, the property manager representing the owner, complained that Ruiz had unnecessarily held up a run-of-the-mill procedure. “I feel like (this case) is a very good example of (why city) processes need to be refined,” he said, “because this is one of the many ways that affordable housing is going to be really hard to capture with a demolition permit taking nearly a year.”

Commissioner Karen McGraw questioned whether the property owner had made a serious effort to rehabilitate the houses. “Would you call that demolition by neglect?” she asked Joseph.

“There are a lot of other properties that are in the same situation,” Joseph responded. “I don’t think that (the owner) has intentionally let these fall apart.”

Commissioner James Schissler made a motion to reject the appeal, noting that if Ruiz or the West University Neighborhood Association wanted to protest the demolition, they should have done so at the HLC meeting.

McGraw made a substitute motion to grant the appeal. She said that the HLC is overwhelmed with demolition cases and that if it had known about the appellant’s research it might have changed its decision. “Our city is being demolished,” she said.

Angela Pineyro De Homes Hart said that the appellant’s reasoning may not conform with the current historic preservation criteria, but it did align with the goals of Imagine Austin. “If we say we really believe in the value of neighborhood fabric and character,” she said, “then (the West University) neighborhood and its association with the university is an institution in and of itself.”

Commissioner Fayez Kazi warned that granting the appeal could set a bad precedent. “(We would) be seeing more of these appeals here, because it’s very easy to make a case for community value based on architecture,” he said.

McGraw’s motion failed on a vote of 2-8, with only she and De Hoyos Hart voting in favor. Schissler’s motion to deny the appeal passed 8-1-1, with McGraw dissenting and De Hoyos Hart abstaining. Chair Stephen Oliver and Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza were absent.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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