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Masonic Lodge construction plans may never satisfy Historic Landmark Commission

Thursday, September 26, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

For three months in a row, the Historic Landmark Commission has made it clear that the design for a modern addition to the Royal Arch Masonic Lodge on the corner of Seventh and Lavaca streets will not easily get its seal of approval.

After attending each full meeting as well as the monthly Certificate of Appropriateness meetings to gather and incorporate feedback into the plans, Guy Dudley, a mason and the president of the Stone Development Group, told the commission at its Sept. 23 meeting that the development team needs to know if the commission will ever give the design a green light. He acknowledged that approving the project would mean the commission must offer some leeway on the scale prescribed by the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards.

“This is such an unusual case and strong opinions in all directions,” said Commissioner Kevin Koch, who requested further studies to be presented, including sightline studies to indicate what pedestrians would see from the ground level while walking by the building.

The main point of contention is the glass tower rising up out of the three-story Masonic lodge. At 10 times the height of the original brick building, commissioners feel the tower would overwhelm the historic structure.

“It’s hard for me to get over the size of this,” said Commissioner Kelly Little.

Commissioner Ben Heimsath, who has been vocal about his disapproval of the design, echoed similar sentiments, saying, “Were this building to be about half the size, I’d think you’re on the right track.”

Dudley explained that the height of the tower was not arbitrary. Forty stories, including the original building, is the optimal height for the developers to be able to turn a profit on the project. At 20 stories, he said, the project would break even.

In addition to making the project financially worthwhile, Dudley said at the proposed height, there will be an estimated $1.5 million in property tax revenue coming into the city. Compared to what the city earns today from the property, that’s a $1.5 million increase.

More immediately, the addition to the historic building would bring some life to a quieter corner of downtown, adding 400 planned hotel rooms while still allowing the Royal Arch masons to retain their ancestral meeting place. “(Austin) is an innovative town that hasn’t seen a solution such as this before,” Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou said.

Other commissioners acknowledged that there have been improvements in the project over the last few iterations and that its more conservative appearance makes it a more appealing design overall. Still, they were hesitant to say whether the current renderings would produce a building that would accentuate rather than swallow the historic nature of the current structure.

“Well, commissioners, if you let me build it, then we’ll know for sure,” Dudley said.

Rather than grant that permission, the commissioners voted unanimously to postpone the project until their October meeting to see more renderings of human-level sightlines. Commissioners Emily Reed, Terri Myers, Emily Hibbs and Mathew Jacob were absent.

Rendering via the city of Austin.

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