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Penick Place historic bid goes ‘a bridge too far’

Friday, August 11, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Will Penick Place be Austin’s next local historic district? It’s possible, but a rough start at the Historic Landmark Commission means that neighbors hoping to enshrine their neighborhood will have to rethink their priorities, and most likely scrap a dogged attempt to preserve vacant lots along Riverside Drive.

Those pushing for a local historic district argued that the lots were an introduction to the 1950s-era, Harvey Penick-designed development, and crucial to its “feel.” But the idea of preserving the undeveloped lots as historic did not sit well with the Historic Landmark Commission, who voted unanimously at its July 24 meeting to deny the application as submitted, though it encouraged the neighborhood to come back with a revised application. At the moment, the proposed district includes the area roughly bounded by Penick Drive to the north and west, East Riverside Drive to the south and Country Club Road to the east, including the 5600 and 5700 blocks of Penick Drive and East Riverside Drive.

Commissioner Emily Reed made the motion to deny. “I think the applicants have made clear that their goal is to regulate the development in the undeveloped portion, which is not appropriately included in this district,” she said. She asked the neighborhood to come back with a district that focused on the potentially historic structures, and with design standards that were more fully baked.

Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou agreed. He said he would be “very much inclined” to support the district without the inclusion of the vacant property.

“I suggest y’all take that, because I think you have a very long battle uphill past this commission to achieve your goals,” he said.

Though all of the homeowners in the proposed district were in support of its creation, the owners of the undeveloped lots opposed the application. Because the vacant lots were more than 20 percent of the proposed district, that opposition means that a supermajority, or nine votes, of City Council would be required to move forward with the district.

One of the landowners, Bill Greif, spoke against creation of the district. He said that the historic district was a response to their plans to develop the land moving forward with city approval in the spring. The land is part of the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan that was adopted in 2013 and currently zoned Neighborhood Mixed Use.

Robert Kleeman also spoke in opposition to the district on behalf of the Greif Yount Partnership, which owns the vacant lots that were included in the district.

“What this really is, is an attempt by the neighbors to re-litigate the zoning of the vacant property,” said Kleeman. “They are trying to back-door and amend the regulating plan of the ERC using this historic district.”

Kleeman said it was “inappropriate” to zone the land historic, an opinion backed up by city staff. Moreover, he argued, the district did not even qualify for historic zoning.

Miranda Dodson is a homeowner within the district who took the lead on the application for the local historic district.

The development, she explained, was designed by golf legend Harvey Penick, who was a pro golfer and coach and is best known as the author of “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book,” which is the second-best selling sports book (and little red book) of all time.

“When you turn off of Riverside and onto Penick, it’s like you are transported to the 1950s,” she said. “It’s a time capsule. It’s something truly special and what we would all call a hidden gem.”

Dodson said that the neighborhood was not opposed to the development of the vacant lots, but the regulating plan would allow the land to be developed up to six stories and “that level of density is just going to absolutely overwhelm any historical designation that goes on behind that.”

Not only that, said Dodson, there was “absolutely no way to divorce” the two vacant sections of land from the neighborhood. “It’s sad to think that this history could be squashed by density,” she said. She told the commission that a three-story development along Riverside would look normal and “go along with the corridor” in addition to being thoughtful of the existing neighborhood.

In addition to questioning the spirit behind the preservation of undeveloped land, commissioners also questioned whether the district, as drawn, would meet the threshold for the required number of historic structures. In the application submitted to the city, five of the homes within the proposed boundary would be contributing structures, two homes would be non-contributing and five lots are currently vacant. A local historic district must be composed of more than 50 percent contributing structures, and there was some confusion about how to calculate that percentage – and whether the vacant lots could, or should, be counted as noncontributing.

Planning and Zoning Department Assistant Director Jerry Rusthoven told the commission that staff would support the application for a historic district if the undeveloped property along Riverside was removed from the application. They were, however, recommending the lots zoned single-family within the development be included in the new district. That would not prevent their development, but new development would have to comply with any adopted design standards.

The commission, which has been encouraging the creation of local historic districts as a means to preserve existing neighborhoods, seemed to support the idea of a Penick Place district in general and encouraged the neighborhood to return with a more viable plan.

“I think you’ve made a compelling case for the Penick property and the houses themselves, but the step to the undeveloped land that hasn’t been touched is a little bit of a bridge too far in this context,” said Commissioner Andrew Brown.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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