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Council upholds demolition of two West Campus properties

Friday, May 19, 2017 by Jack Craver

After waiting nearly 400 days, a property owner in the West Campus neighborhood will be able to demolish two buildings that have been held up by neighbors seeking to get them classified as historic landmarks.

City Council voted narrowly Thursday to reject an appeal of a decision by the Historic Landmark Commission last year to release a demolition permit for the properties, built between 1919 and 1930, located at 1207 and 1209 W. 22 ½ St. The commission, in a rare display of consensus, voted unanimously in July to release the permit, concurring with the finding of the Historic Preservation Office that the two properties did not meet the criteria for landmark designation.

The two existing buildings are a triplex and a fourplex. The property owner is planning to replace them with two single-family homes.

Neighbors launched an appeal to block the demolitions, however, arguing that the commission’s vote had not followed proper procedure and that it had overlooked compelling evidence that the properties were potentially worthy of landmark status. The Planning Commission voted 8-1-1 in February to deny the appeal.

Olivia Ruiz, a neighbor opposed to the demolitions, told Council that neighbors had not had an opportunity to make their case to the commission. The Historic Landmark Commission didn’t take up the matter until after 1 a.m., at the conclusion of a meeting that had gone on for more than six hours. By that time, she said, neighbors had understandably left.

Recalling the July 25 meeting, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky noted that the motion to release the demolition permit was made by Commissioner Terri Myers, who he described as an “ardent” advocate of historic preservation. Her motion was seconded by former Commissioner Arif Panju, an avowed opponent of historic preservation restrictions.

Sadowsky pointed out that his staff had encouraged rehabilitation of the two properties in the hopes of preserving architecture that was in keeping with the historic character of the neighborhood.

“We want to preserve the character of the city architecturally,” he said, “but not every single building can qualify as a historic landmark.”

Ruiz also appealed to Council’s desire to promote affordable housing, saying that the former tenants of the existing building were of modest means, including a woman who she said only made $9.25 an hour.

If Council voted in favor of the appeal, the case would have been kicked back to the Historic Landmark Commission for a second review.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, in whose district the properties are located, said she was conflicted on the matter. Emphasizing her respect for the wisdom of the Historic Landmark Commission and city staff, she nevertheless expressed concern about the neighbors’ inability to give input during the commission meeting.

Tovo bemoaned the increasing number of demolitions in the area, which she framed as the consequence of upzoning. The consequence, she said, is less affordable housing in Central Austin.

Council Member Greg Casar said that he would also support giving the Historic Landmark Commission another pass at the case and look into whether there were potentially historically significant factors.

However, he offered a different view on development patterns in the urban core than Tovo. It was not upzoning that was causing affordability problems, he said. In fact, he added, the two multifamily properties were evidence that Central Austin has long been home to a variety of housing types “until that became less legal” due to more restrictive zoning more recently. He would like the city to further encourage more multifamily housing, he explained.

Cater Joseph, an agent for the property owner, pleaded with Council to allow the demolition to go forward. Those opposing the permit were clearly not doing it for the sake of historic preservation, he argued, saying that neighbors had said that they would withdraw their objection if the owner promised to not allow on-street parking in front of the new homes.

Ruiz disputed Joseph’s assertion. The properties had plenty of on-site parking, she said, so that wouldn’t be an issue that would concern the neighbors.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan passionately urged his colleagues to vote against the appeal.

“Staff has made a very eloquent case that it does not meet the standard for historic preservation,” he said. Sending the case back to the commission would not lead to a different conclusion, he said.

“All we will do,” Flannigan added, “is cost the property owner more money.”

Mayor Steve Adler said that he was conflicted about the case but said that “the process had been followed at every stage.”

A motion to grant the appeal failed, 5-6, with Tovo, Casar and Council members Leslie Pool, Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen voting in favor. Adler, Flannigan and Council members Pio Renteria, Delia Garza, Alison Alter and Ellen Troxclair voted against.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor following the meeting, Ruiz expressed anger with city staff as well as the Council members who had supported releasing the permit and suggested that she would seek legal action to block the demolition.

While Sadowsky could not recommend landmark designation for the properties, he did say that he believed the neighborhood was “ripe” to be designated a historic district, which would make it harder to demolish buildings that are deemed to be in keeping with the overall architectural character.

Tovo said that she hoped to explore the creation of a historic district in the future.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin

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