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No historic zoning for Tobin House without demolition threat

Wednesday, March 29, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Despite agreement from city staff and concerned neighbors that the house would make a fine landmark, the Historic Landmark Commission opted to drop its pursuit of historic zoning for Old Austin’s Tobin House at its most recent meeting.

The reason? Since the last time the commission met, the owners of 405 W. 14th St. has decided to withdraw the demolition permit that persuaded Historic Landmark Commissioners to pursue the zoning change against their wishes. The home, which was built in 1910, was identified as historically significant in a 1984 survey. In addition, its first occupants – the Tobin family – are recognized as a significant Austin family known for their entertaining, drugstore and Congress Avenue’s Tobin’s Book Store.

“This is a little bit unusual, obviously,” said Planning and Zoning Department Assistant Director Jerry Rusthoven. He explained that staff was not recommending the case move forward because although, without a pending demolition permit, they did not feel there was still a threat to the house, staff’s research did show that the home meets the criteria for landmark designation.

Commissioner Emily Reed initially made a motion to postpone the case, though she ultimately opted to support dropping it, saying they were “in a difficult position.” She worried about sending it to City Council, where it would have to get nine votes in favor of historic designation to override the owners’ wishes. “I just feel we are in a little bit of a chess match here,” said Reed.

Withdrawing the demolition permit did not appear to completely assuage the fears of concerned citizens, including the Old Austin Neighborhood Association and Preservation Austin, who asked the commission to move forward with historic zoning over the wishes of the owners.

Cynthia O’Keeffe, who is a great-great-granddaughter of the home’s first resident, said she was pleased the demolition had been withdrawn. However, she was concerned about the existence of House Bill 3418, which could leave the house at risk if it passes.

“The prominence of the family is beyond debate,” she said.

Former Council Member Chris Riley also supported moving forward with historic zoning for the home and directed commissioners to, which expounds on the history of the house and Tobin family. He also stressed the “community value” of the home, noting that a petition to save the home had more than 360 signatures and comments from people “who care deeply about this house and feel that it is very important to that neighborhood.”

“As a neighbor, I can testify to the importance that it plays and what a serious blow it would be to that neighborhood to have a surface parking lot on that particular location,” said Riley. “I think designating it as a landmark would be an important step towards recognizing the significance of the house. There are questions remaining about what the fate of the house will be.”

South Llano Strategies’ Glen Coleman, who was representing the homeowners, said “it would set a terrible precedent” if withdrawing the building permit didn’t mean anything. He cautioned against moving forward with the historic zoning case against the will of the owners.

Coleman made the point that plans to demolish part of the house and preserve the front, or preserve the whole house, remained on the table and were dependent on the wishes of whoever bought the property in the future. He said that he was not worried about the bill pending at the Texas Legislature and reminded commissioners that any plans that involved significant demolition in the future would return to the commission.

“If you send my client down the path (of historic zoning), it’s going to be a long and expensive path, it’s going to generate a lot of bad will and it’s going to really complicate things. … It’s a real disincentive to the kind of openness I think we want to see here,” said Coleman. “Let us walk away tonight.”

Commissioners voted unanimously not to take further action at this time, with a note that the home met the criteria for historic designation.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin. This story has been corrected to reflect the accurate name of the neighborhood association.

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