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Code compliance citation inspires historic restoration

Thursday, July 25, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After years of languishing in disrepair, a circa-1922 grocery store at 220 Comal St. was cited for code compliance issues, prompting the owners to file for a partial demolition permit to make repairs.

In order to preserve the neighborhood building and ensure the sensitivity of the repairs, the Historic Landmark Commission voted in May to initiate the historic zoning process for the store.

The architect on the project, Ponciano Morales, who was speaking on behalf of the applicant, told commissioners that originally Comal Koalas Properties, the owner of the property, was considering a historic designation for the building, but now intends only to make the building code-compliant.

Commissioner Witt Featherston said he was not surprised that the property owners weren’t keen on a historic designation.

“At some point, they tend to take this to its highest and best use in the free market,” he said.

The property is currently valued at $1.39 million, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District.

“It was misrepresented on the initial meeting,” Morales said. “It was never meant to be a demolition.” Instead, he said, the idea was to restore the building and update it with plumbing and air conditioning to house a modern commercial business.

Members of the community attended the commission meeting to express their concern that the nearly century-old neighborhood grocery had fallen into disrepair and their hope that the property owners would salvage the historic structure.

“We just want to make sure it’s not being proposed as a larger development,” said Bertha Delgado, the vice chair of the Community Development Commission. “The neighborhood wants to see what was there before.”

City Historic Preservation staff recommended historic zoning just for the historic building, with a 25-foot buffer around it. That would allow the property owner to develop the rest of the property for what the market commands, while preserving what Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky called a “vanishing resource.” The lot is half an acre and the grocery store only occupies a small corner with street-facing frontage.

However, everyone was in agreement that some sort of repairs need to be completed. According to Morales, nearly everything on the interior and exterior of the building needs to be replaced or repaired, including the siding, foundation, rafters and windows.

Finalizing the nature of those repairs was more challenging.

“Were the owner to be more specific about what they were going to do … I’d feel more comfortable waiving this opportunity to go with the (historic) zoning,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath. He said as there are currently no concrete restoration plans, recommending historic zoning for the structure was the city’s “one shot” to save it.

The commission agreed with this assessment and voted unanimously to recommend historic zoning for the property. Texas now requires a supermajority vote to initiate historic zoning against an owner’s wishes at both the commission and Council level. That means nine votes in favor of recommending the zoning at the Historic Landmark Commission.

Commissioners Beth Valenzuela and Kevin Koch were absent.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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