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After years of delays and protest, West Lynn demolition moves forward

Tuesday, June 5, 2018 by Elizabeth Pagano

It took a long time to get there, and there was a lot of angst in the process, but, in the end, the demolition of 611 West Lynn St. was approved without much fanfare at all.

“This is a case that has been around for a long time,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, at the most recent meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission. Sadowsky explained that the first application to demolish the home was 15 years ago. At that point, he explained, the commission initiated a historic zoning case on the home, which was built in 1899 and is a contributing structure to the West Line National Register Historic District. That case ran out the clock, due to postponements. In 2015, the case came back, the commission initiated historic zoning, and the same thing happened again.

During the second round, the case grabbed the attention of local media. The Labay family, who also owns Nau’s Enfield Drug, said the expense of maintaining the home and paying taxes was too much to bear and could force the drugstore to close. Instead, the application for a demolition permit was finally approved, albeit under different circumstances.

“Now here we are today with a new application for demolition, based upon an order from the Building and Standards Commission,” said Sadowsky. He explained that the house has been vacant for about 15 years, resulting in a complaint about its deterioration and, ultimately, a Feb. 28 ruling by the Building and Standards Commission that the home was “a dangerous structure.”

Commissioners voted 6-2 to allow the demolition to move forward, with Chair Mary Jo Galindo and Commissioner Terri Myers voting in opposition and commissioners Emily Reed and Andrew Brown absent. David Peyton II resigned from the commission prior to the meeting.

Commissioner Kevin Koch said that he didn’t think the home met the standards for individual historic landmark zoning.

“In most cases where there is significant community value, we tend to have lines of people here, talking. And I just haven’t seen that support,” said Koch. “Maybe it’s come up in the past, and people just want it to be done. … I think the time for recommending would have been eight years ago.”

Myers said that perhaps the neighborhood was not aware of the pending demolition, and said she was confused about why the historic zoning never moved forward.

“I think the building is significant to the community, and I think that it could be restored. This is a case of demolition by neglect, essentially, and that’s really a sad thing,” said Myers, who argued that the home met the criteria for becoming a historic landmark based on architectural significance and community value.

Former Council Member Randi Shade, who lives in the neighborhood, spoke on behalf of the homeowners. She explained it was her first visit back to City Hall since she was in office. “As a neighbor, as a friend, and as a person who has watched this, it’s time to resolve this case,” she said. “I guarantee that there will be citizens and neighbors upset about how you vote tonight, no matter what. There are people who think it’s an eyesore … and there’s people who think it should be protected at all costs.”

“My ask to you is to make a decision,” said Shade.

Laura Labay, whose parents own the home, said they had filed for a permit after the Building and Standards ruling. She said that, this time around, the family was hoping for “a painless and straightforward process” and were determined to get closure.

“There have been lots of starts and stops, lots of emotional energy expended,” she said. “It’s a lot of house and has a lot of challenges. Challenges that have been impossible for our family to overcome and have only worsened with each year that has passed.”

Labay stressed the fact that no part of the original house was salvageable. “All we’ve ever wanted to achieve is a good outcome for our community, fairness for our family and to be able to continue our livelihood.”

Shawn Shillington, chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, said that the association had not voted on the most recent incarnation on the case, but he echoed Shade’s sentiments. “I don’t want to see this drag on any longer. I think nobody likes the current situation there. The house is obviously in very bad shape. We’d like to either see it designated as a historic landmark or demolished. But moving forward with one of those two options, the sooner the better, is going to be best.”

Alexander Shoghi, who lives across the street from the home, spoke against the demolition.

“One could call this a fairly resounding victory against the Historic Landmark Commission,” he said. He noted that by refusing to comply over the past 15 years, the property was in sufficient disrepair that the demolition that the family wanted had been ordered. He offered to buy the home at the price listed by TCAD, $1.24 million, and restore it.

“We have to recognize that there is a significant profit motive in tearing down the property and potentially subdividing the lot,” he said. “In this case it appears to be more about willingness to comply, as opposed to ability to comply.”

Shade explained that there have been offers on the house, but nothing had panned out. She called the offer to buy the house “silly.” Shade said the case was not about pleas of poverty, but whether or not the house was historic. “The rest is irrelevant,” she said.

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