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Mary Street historic district sails to Council

Monday, April 16, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

Travis Heights is one step closer to getting its first local historic district after a trip to the Planning Commission last week.

The Mary Street historic district is a modest bid for a historic district that would cover just 2.5 acres of the city. Scaled down from a recent attempt to create a Bluebonnet Hills local historic district that was itself a scaled-down version of an ambitious plan to create a local historic district for all of Travis Heights, the proposal now includes a total of 16 historic buildings on the 500 block of Mary Street.

Originally, 17 buildings were to be part of the district as contributing structures, but since the application one of the homes has been demolished. That demolition provided a timely example of looming development pressures on the street that supporters cited at the meeting. As it stands now, 68 percent of the property owners on the block support creation of the district. Only one homeowner within the district actively opposes its creation – the owner of the demolished home – though proposed design standards created to maintain the character of the neighborhood will not apply to the new construction on that property.

Local historic districts are a tool that allows the city to preserve buildings based on a collective historic merit rather than an individual one. As part of that process, the city also approves design standards to regulate the types of buildings in a particular area to preserve its character. Those standards are established by the neighborhood, which is also responsible for putting together an application to create the district.

At the meeting, James Bilodeau, who lives on Mary Street, said that the proposed design standards are flexible and preserve the “street-facing character” of the neighborhood while allowing things like additions, accessory dwelling units and solar panels.

“There aren’t many neighborhoods left like this in Austin,” he said. “The residents who live here overwhelmingly support its preservation. We urge you to do the same.”

Gretchen Otto is the past president of the South River City Citizens and an owner of an 83-year-old contributing structure. She said she considers herself a steward of the home for future residents. She asked commissioners to respect the wishes of the neighborhood to create the district.

“The houses aren’t huge. They are small cottages. But they are an important piece of the past of Austin. It’s not just big-name architects and large houses that deserve preservation,” said Otto. “That’s why we have local historic districts, so that groupings of houses can be preserved. Our houses tell the story of the working-class folks that lived in Austin when it was just a small town.”

Commissioners voted 9-0-1 to recommend creation of the district. Commissioner James Schissler abstained from the vote and Chair Stephen Oliver and commissioners Trinity White and Angela De Hoyos Hart were absent for the vote. The district now heads to City Council for approval.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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