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Is a historic district on the way for Travis Heights?

Thursday, March 15, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

If at first, second or third you don’t succeed, try something smaller. That might prove the key to a Travis Heights historic district.

A local historic district has long been in the works for the South Central Austin neighborhood. For more than a decade, residents have attempted to tackle a designation for the whole neighborhood, with no success. Then, three years ago, a more modest proposal emerged in the form of the Bluebonnet Hills historic district, which would have included 86 structures in the neighborhood. Now neighbors are back with an even smaller proposal.

The Mary Street local historic district would include 19 buildings over 2.5 acres in Travis Heights. At the time of the most recent meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, it had the active support of 68 percent of the property owners that would be included. Only one home – which amounts to about 5 percent – actively opposes creation of the district, with the remaining owners not weighing in on either side of the proposal.

Commissioners voted unanimously, 8-0, to recommend creation of the district, which will ultimately need City Council’s approval to become a reality. Local historic districts are one of the few tools that allow the city to preserve existing structures, aside from individual historic landmark designations, giving the city and the neighborhood a say in demolitions and how new homes and additions to existing homes are built.

James Bilodeau, who lives in the proposed district, spoke in support of the application. He explained that while there hadn’t been a demolition in the proposed district since its period of significance, which ended in 1939, “that’s about to change.” A demolition permit has been issued for the home at 501 E. Mary St. and, he added, the owners of that property are the only ones within the proposed district that oppose its creation.

However, former Historic Landmark Commissioner Arif Panju spoke in opposition to the district, on his own behalf and on behalf of the Friends of Bluebonnet Hills Neighborhood Association. Though he doesn’t live within the confines of the current proposal, he does live nearby, and he was active in fighting the previous application for the Bluebonnet Hills historic district. This time, Panju told commissioners that he had issues with how the neighborhood had been notified about the change. He said that the Friends of Bluebonnet Hills had been left out of the process entirely and the personal notice he had received highlighted only one property on the included map – not the entire 19 buildings.

“If this is a neighborhood effort that comes on the heels of another neighborhood effort to do the very same thing, I would assume that all the people affected, including the associations involved, would be brought to the table,” said Panju. “But, again, I’m not the one driving the process. … That’s the problem.”

“It’s a wonderful street, full of eclectic people who are doing wonderful things in this city, but there’s people that have differing views about what they’d like to do with their homes,” he continued. “This may be simply a reaction to CodeNEXT. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen again is the weaponization of the historic district ordinance.”

Panju also questioned the integrity of an application that included the work of two sitting commissioners – Terri Myers and Emily Reed. He said they should recuse themselves from the vote.

Reed was absent from the meeting. Myers explained that she had surveyed the homes in the proposed district 10 years ago, for another project. “I have no current involvement in this, and no dog in this fight other than (believing) that historic preservation is a good thing,” she said. “I think this is a tight district. I’m not going to recuse.”

During his rebuttal, Bilodeau said that Panju was just trying to undermine the public process. He explained that while one of the notices only had one house on the map on the back, there were actually two notices that went out. The other one, he said, had the full district on it.

In terms of notifying the Friends of Bluebonnet Hills, he said that he didn’t believe anyone in the organization lived within the proposed district.

“Mr. Panju doesn’t live on the street, which is noteworthy,” he said. “If you think about preservation, and the externalities. … It’s not like living downstream from a chemical plant or smelling barbecue smoke next door. It’s just preservation. There’s less impact on his house than if there was excessive, intensive development.”

This story has been changed since publication to correct a misspelled name.

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