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Proposed demolitions rattle Old West Austin

Wednesday, January 17, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

At the most recent meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, neighbors showed up in force to protest the prospect of demolishing a swath of homes in the heart of Old West Austin.

The five demolitions are all part of a single development proposal. Four of the properties located at 905 Maufrais St. and 1404, 1408, and 1410 W. Ninth St. – are contributing structures to the West Line Historic District. (The fifth house, which is at 1406 W. Ninth St., was built in the late 1950s.)

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that, in city staff’s estimation, none of the homes would qualify for historic zoning, though they do embody the historic character of the West Line Historic District. At the moment, that rezoning is the city’s only path to preventing the demolitions. But another option could be just over the horizon.

Though national register districts do not give the city the power to prevent demolitions, local historic districts do. And, though the process for creating such a district is lengthy and labor-intensive, the four contributing homes up for demolition are part of the proposed Smoot Terrace Park Local Historic District that is already in process. With a historic survey done, and a second draft written, the district will be up for consideration by the city over the next few months.

“It doesn’t exist,” said Sadowsky. “But I did want y’all to be aware of that.”

With that awareness, Historic Landmark commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the four contributing structures to their March 26 meeting. Commissioners Andrew Brown and Alex Papavasiliou were absent. The non-contributing building at 1406 W. Ninth will be reconsidered at the commission’s Feb. 26 meeting. (Because that house is not a contributing structure, it is on a shorter timeline, and the demolition permit would be released by the March meeting without further action by the Historic Landmark Commission.)

“I just thank all the neighbors coming out tonight,” said Commissioner Emily Reed. “Just know that the best way to support this is to support your local historic district and make sure that happens by March.”

Bryan Cumby, who is with Mid City Development, spoke in favor of the demolitions. He told the commission that MCD was pursuing a development plan that wouldn’t maximize the density allowed under the property’s Multifamily Residence Moderate-High Density (MF-4) zoning. He also said that there was a possibility that the plan would incorporate a number of the existing homes (or relocate them). He said MCD needed the demolition permits for flexibility while it was still in the early stages of design and inspection.

“We are interested in doing something unique with this property that will add to the character of this neighborhood, not detract,” said Cumby. “It’s our intent to be thoughtful.”

Cumby said that MCD had responded to concerned neighbors, but was holding off on formal meetings until it had a vetted site plan. He explained that it could take MCD as much as 18 months to get a site development plan, and it was trying to understand what would and wouldn’t be possible in the meantime.

“It’s not our intention to be adversarial,” he said. “There’s no arguing that they are in a historical district, but the question that I am asking for an answer to is: Do these particular structures have historical significance that would prevent them from being demolished, if we find we just can’t repurpose them?”

Old West Austin Neighborhood Association President Shawn Shillington noted the property was adjacent to West Austin Park, which many neighbors referenced as the “heart” of the neighborhood. He said he couldn’t recall another project that had sparked such interest.

“Part of it is fear of the unknown,” he said, urging caution moving forward. He told the commission that the neighborhood association voted to support delays in the project to ensure that research on the structures was thorough. Shillington said the association would support historic zoning if it was appropriate, noting demolition of homes would impact the local historic district in the works. That said, he explained the neighborhood was open to working with the developer.

His concerns were echoed by about a dozen neighbors who spoke against the demolition, including adjacent neighbor Erin Tomson.

“The owner of this property is asking for your permission to demolish every structure on nearly 1.2 acres of land,” said Tomson. “If granted, this demolition would be the largest single destruction of historic buildings in Old West Austin in decades. … Please join us in defending our community against those who seek to damage our street, our neighborhood and our park in the name of making money.”

Father Gary Francis, who is the Vicar of St. Philip’s Anglican Church, also spoke against the demolitions. St. Philip’s church has been a tenant at 1408 W. Ninth St. for 25 years.

“For the sake of my parishioners and St. Philip’s, I ask you to please help spare our church,” he said. “Because we won’t have any place to go except to the suburbs, and our people don’t want to build in the suburbs.”

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