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Planning Commission gives no recommendation on contentious historic zoning case

Tuesday, June 18, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After the Historic Landmark Commission voted against the owner’s wishes and staff recommendation to recommend historic zoning for the property at 1603 Willow St., the case came to the June 11 meeting of the Planning Commission.

The commissioners weighed the recommendation of the HLC and the testimony of two dozen neighbors against Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky’s opinion. He said, “I have personally been by the house and can attest that many of the elements have deteriorated beyond repair.” The commission eventually settled on offering no recommendation on the matter.

Despite the voluntary choice not to give a recommendation, had the commission had a consensus, they would never have been able to recommend historic zoning. If a property owner objects to the historic designation of a property, a two-thirds supermajority is needed to recommend or introduce historic zoning. Although the commission attempted a vote to recommend historic zoning and a postponement, both motions failed and the commission moved on without explicitly voting not to make a recommendation on the case to Council.

Nine Planning Commission members were present to hear the case.

The house was listed in both the 1980 and 2016 East Austin Historic Resources Survey as a significant structure but was never officially made a landmark, nor is it a contributing structure to a local historic district. This, coupled with the fact that the home was left to deteriorate for eight years, has the involved parties split over whether the home is salvageable.

The Historic Landmark Commission felt confident that the structure of the home was sound enough to allow for renovations that would maintain the historic facade.

However, as Sadowsky told the Planning Commission, “The commission based their recommendation on the architecture of the house as well as community value for telling the story of East Austin. My evaluation is it doesn’t meet the second criteria very strongly.”

As for the architecture, Sadowsky expressed his lack of confidence that the integrity of the home’s historical fabric would remain intact after a renovation. According to him, the doors, windows and siding all need to be replaced due to deterioration.

Commissioner Karen McGraw pointed out that any restorations or changes to the exterior would require a certificate of appropriateness to ensure that the facade of the home remains visually true to its historic roots. She also explained that keeping the home’s original character would give more continuity to the neighborhood as a whole.

Sadowsky mentioned that the Preservation Office is actively working on considering a Southeast Austin Historic District that would include Willow Street.

Sara Pedrosa, a neighbor who works as an archivist, spoke to the commissioners to explain that “if Austin is committed to saving and stewarding diverse histories, then we must recognize not all families have the resources to keep the homes they inherit in pristine condition.” In order to protect a variety of structures with unique histories from demolition, she said the city needs to “commit to saving homes of famous writers and watchmakers.”

“I don’t recommend against historic zoning very often,” Sadowsky said.

With commissioners Greg Anderson, Patrick Howard, James Shieh and Jeffrey Thompson absent from the conversation, the case will move forward to City Council at its June 20 meeting with no recommendation from the Planning Commission.

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