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Five new demolition permits released for Old West Austin homes

Friday, March 30, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

A modified plan for five homes in the West Line Historic District moved forward at the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday night, but it required a leap of faith on the part of commissioners.

Originally, five demolitions were part of a single development proposal in the Old West Austin neighborhood. Since then, the developers have agreed to preserve three of the buildings as “anchors” of the development – those located at 905 Maufrais St. and 1408 and 1410 W. Ninth St. Demolitions for the contributing historic property at 1404 W. Ninth St. and the non-contributing structure at 1406 W. Ninth St. are still planned.

In addition, compromise with the neighborhood has reduced the number of proposed units from 29 to 23 units, with more larger units that could accommodate families.

For various logistical reasons, the choice that was before the commission was to approve all five demolition permits and rely on assurances by the owner and developer that three would be used to move the homes, not tear them down. Commissioners took that risk in a vote of 8-1, with Commissioner Terri Myers voting in opposition and commissioners Emily Hibbs and David Peyton absent.

Having been burned in the past, commissioners appeared somewhat wary, but were ultimately persuaded by the good faith effort that had been put forth by the developer, and the resulting increased support by the neighborhood.

Commissioner Blake Tollett had one request: “Don’t make fools of us up here. Please don’t make a fool of us,” he said.

Myers said that she could not support a motion that explicitly allowed demolition of four contributing buildings in a National Register district. “I just can’t,” she said, noting the project would not only remove buildings but add non-contributing buildings as well.

Because the West Line Historic District is a National Register district, even though the homes are considered historic, and “contributing” to that district, the city has only one option to prevent their demolition against the owner’s wishes – individual historic landmarking for the homes. However, city staff did not find that the buildings met that more stringent criteria. A local historic district could also prevent the demolition of the buildings, and there is one of those currently moving through the city’s approval process. But, because it wasn’t in place at the time the demolition permits were requested, it would not prevent the demolition of these particular buildings, even if it were to be approved.

Bryan Cumby, who is with Mid City Development, explained that they had been working on getting the demolition permits since October, and he said that at this point, he needed a determination on whether the homes were eligible for individual landmark status or not.

“In our view, there isn’t any ambiguity in what we intend to do. We have laid out our plans. We have been cooperative. We have come before this group now – I believe this is our fourth trip before this body, two trips before the (Certificate of Appropriateness Committee), five to six trips before OWANA,” he said, noting that the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association had voted at its last meeting not to oppose the permits.

“I’m frankly at a point where I really don’t have any more words about it. I think I’ve done nothing but give, give, give,” said Cumby.

He explained that he had agreed to 10 different points with the neighborhood. That agreement, and the understanding that his project could be much worse in the eyes of opponents, had led OWANA to drop its opposition, he said. After that detente, Cumby was surprised to find that the city had continued to delay the demolitions, at a cost to him.

The Historic Landmark Commission does have the power to delay demolitions, ostensibly to give it time to deliberate. The commission has done that for the past 90 days, and it could do so for a total of 180 days.

After listening to a dozen or so neighbors that opposed the demolition, a clearly frustrated Cumby told the commission, “It’s as if none of the conversations that we’ve held in good faith even happened.”

“I’m an urban developer in Austin, Texas,” he continued. “Do you really think an urban developer in Austin wants to get the reputation with groups like OWANA that you come in and bait and switch?” he asked. “I’ve done nothing but do everything that I said I would do. And I’ve put it in writing as I was asked to.”

OWANA President Shawn Shillington explained that OWANA had voted not to oppose the demolition permits. The association also voted in favor of supporting the local historic district.

“The neighborhood takes the history of the neighborhood very seriously. There’s a lot of people who care about this project,” he said. “The vote not to oppose was made very much in reliance on the belief that he is going to follow through with the things that he told us he would do.”

Still, many neighbors spoke against the demolition permits, asking for more time to understand the plans for the property.

Donna Carter, who is a preservation architect in addition to being a neighbor, also spoke against the demolitions. She cautioned against approving demolition permits before a binding site plan was in place. “I know it’s very easy for things to get knocked down,” she said, advocating for relocation permits to be in place, not just demolition permits with promises that they would only be used to move the homes on the property. “This is the wrong ask at the wrong time,” she said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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