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A storybook-inspired home is not a fairy-tale ending for Clarksville neighbors

Thursday, September 27, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but sometimes a desire for architectural continuity within a neighborhood trumps the desires of a homeowner.

At 1002 Charlotte St. in the Clarksville neighborhood, there is a small one-story home built in the minimal traditional style of the mid-20th century whose future is uncertain. Those who purchased the property have plans to demolish the house and erect a two-story home in the Gothic Revival style with storybook influences.

“We’re opposed to the demolition for one thing … and we’re also opposed to the design that has nothing to do with Clarksville,” said Mary Reed, the president of the Clarksville Community Development Corporation, at the Sept. 24 meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission.

“That’s the equivalent of putting a castle in the middle of downtown with a moat around it,” said Thurman Jackson, who lives down the street from the property.

The commissioners also felt that the proposed design was not aligned with the history of the Clarksville neighborhood. Commissioner Terri Myers noted that the African-American history of the neighborhood would not be reflected through the proposed architecture.

In hopes of an explanation for the plans, Myers asked if the developers were from Austin; she gave them the benefit of the doubt of not being familiar with the history of the neighborhood. According to Reed, the developers are located in the city and have restored other old historic homes.

This project already caused some questions when it was before the commission in August. With no applicant present at that meeting, however, the commissioners postponed the hearing in the hope that the neighborhood would have a chance to speak with the developer and reach a compromise on the design. According to the neighborhood, no meeting was held and there has been no change to the architectural plans.

Similarly, Cara Bertron from the Historic Preservation Office told the commission that she has spoken with the applicant about this case on multiple occasions but has received no response on the subject of preservation.

According to the city’s Land Development Code, a contributing building in a National Register Historic District can have a hearing postponed for 180 days as opposed to the customary 75. Bertron explained to the Austin Monitor that this extension is intended “to encourage property owners that there are alternatives to demolition.” However, she noted that a property owner’s response is not required since a permit for demolition will be released after the 180-day period has expired.

“We are very concerned that they are going to run out the clock on this,” said William Edwards, who lives next door to the house.

One solution for preservation would be if the home was deemed historic, but Bertron noted that the home “does not appear to meet the standards for designation as a historic landmark” and so that particular recourse is not available to preserve the property. Since the property is, however, located within the National Register Historic District, it is therefore subject to evaluation under the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which states that “New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction will not destroy historic materials, features, and spatial relationships that characterize the property.”

As the proposed project intends to demolish the house, staff does not find the project in line with the standards and is recommending that the applicant move the current home elsewhere within the district.

Nevertheless, with the applicant absent from the hearing and neither staff, nor the commission, nor the neighbors aware of any discussions held on the subject, their recommendation remains just that – a recommendation.

“We understand that she and her fellow investors want to realize a return on their money,” explained Reed to the commission. But, she pointed out, there are plenty of examples of additions and remodels where they could achieve that same goal – although they may not completely maximize their profit.

Although he was not speaking on behalf of this particular property, Dave Piper, the president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, came to ask the commission if it had any kind of plan to preserve any kind of the historic character in general. “It seems like you deal with individual structures,” he said.

Taking his comment in the context of the Clarksville conundrum, Myers asked rhetorically, “Are we going to continue to do these things on a case-by-case basis, or are we going to have a plan for preserving neighborhoods? And this is an example of a neighborhood where we are losing (buildings) … one by one.”

For this case, it seems that the hearing will continue to be conducted independently of the other homes in the area. The commission voted unanimously to postpone the hearing for another month to allow the applicant time to speak and in front of the commission. Commissioners Andrew Brown and Emily Hibbs were absent.

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