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East Austin home slated for historic zoning against owner’s wishes

Thursday, April 25, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

It is rare in Austin that a home is preserved against an owner’s wishes. According to Preservation Austin, the city has disregarded an owner’s wishes in this manner exactly three times since 1974. Now there is a chance it will happen a fourth time.

One hundred and seventeen years ago, German immigrants constructed what is today one of the last few examples of early-20th-century architecture from the German settlement in East Austin. Although the property at 1603 Willow St. has weathered over a century of existence, the last five years have been particularly hard on the home and its condition has deteriorated dramatically, though apparently not enough to cause irreparable damage.

After opening the case to initiate the historic zoning process for the home last month, the Historic Landmark Commission voted 6-2 at its April 23 meeting to recommend historic zoning for the property.

Though no one from the neighborhood or city staff turned up to support this designation, members of the commission felt that the architectural and historical significance of the home was unquestionably worth trying to save.

“I honestly hoped the condition was such that it was a lost cause,” Commissioner Kevin Koch told the Austin Monitor. However, he said that the bones of the original structure were in remarkable condition. “I couldn’t in good conscience say it was OK to tear down a 117-year-old structure like that,” he said.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky expressed a different opinion. “This house under normal standards would qualify as a historical landmark,” he said. However, due to its current state, any attempt at restoration “would constitute more reconstruction than a restoration.”

The owner of the property, Geoff Reilert, told the commission that since the last hearing on the case, he has spoken to several architects, builders and neighbors in order to better determine the viability of preserving the home. “Everybody I’ve spoken with is in favor of the demolition,” he said. The property is currently serving as a squatter shelter for homeless residents who, according to Reilert, light fires inside the home and vandalize the property.

Reilert also spoke to local architect Tom Hatch, who is well-known for preservation and restoration projects. According to Reilert, Hatch’s suggested repairs to the foundation of the home “was basically my budget for a new build.”

“I don’t have unlimited money and everyone has said without unlimited money this is impossible,” said Reilert.

Sadowsky told the Austin Monitor that an individual’s financial situation is not a consideration for the commission when determining whether to historically designate a landmark. However, he explained that the commission can consider whether restoration of a property is financially prudent. “Is the work that’s necessary to preserve this house … does that exceed the value of the property? Otherwise, it’s financially infeasible for anybody,” clarified Sadowsky.

The assessed value of the property, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District, is $346,977. Reilert told the commission that his budget for new construction was $350,000 for a 2,000-square-foot home.

Having walked through the property, Commissioner Kevin Koch noted that while the condition appears to be abominable, the integrity of the structure is still very much intact and salvageable. “I believe that a $350,000 budget could restore this home nicely,” he said. He pointed out that tax abatements over 10 years would add $80,000 to the project budget. His calculations, he told the Monitor, were based on a 2015 hearing on the case in which former owner Jeff Blatt cited $300,000 as the required budget for a full restoration of the house.

Although not unsympathetic to the financial strain associated with restoring the property, Commissioner Ben Heimsath pointed out that when Reilert purchased the property, he “became a steward of a very important landmark house.”

Not all commissioners agreed with that assessment. “This just seemed like an insurmountable amount of work for someone trying to own their first home,” said Commissioner Witt Featherston.

Beyond the restoration being a significant undertaking, Commissioner Koch felt the home’s strong association with 20th-century craftspeople was exactly what made the house worth preserving: The home originally belonged to German immigrants and then later to a noted Hispanic clockmaker and his wife. But Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou was skeptical. “I struggle with the association part of this,” he said.

At the vote, commissioners Papavasiliou and Featherston did not support the motion. Still, the recommendation passed and the case will now move to the Planning Commission and then to City Council where, to receive historic zoning, it will require a supermajority vote since the case came on the agenda against the owner’s wishes.

Koch expressed uncertainty over whether 1603 Willow St. will end up with a historic marker on its facade, but explained that it was still worth trying to preserve. “I think this probably isn’t going to make it to the finish line because the deck is stacked against us,” he said.

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