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Council questions, and approves, new Old West Austin historic landmark

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 by Elizabeth Pagano

The last item on City Council’s most recent agenda passed without much notice, but for some Council members it spoke to ongoing issues of disparity in Austin’s preservation program.

Council members voted 8-3 to designate the 1928 Italian Renaissance Revival home at 2412 Harris Blvd. a historic landmark. The bright yellow home’s historic significance was endorsed by both the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky explained that the home “meets all of the criteria for historic landmark designation. It’s a wonderful and unaltered example of Italian Renaissance Revival architecture, which is rare in the city.”

In addition to its architectural merit, Sadowsky praised the home’s historical association with the Heierman and Hornaday families. The Heiermans were industrialists who operated a number of machine shops and businesses before selling the home to William D. and Marjorie Hornaday. William D. Hornaday was the first director of publicity at the University of Texas.

Council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan voted in opposition to designating the home a historic landmark.

“It is a beautiful home, I really enjoy looking at it,” Harper-Madison said. “(But) so much of my district is under threat of the wrecking ball. I have a hard time with approving historic designation knowing that there are some potential tax breaks for the homeowner and that this house has a valuation in the millions of dollars. It makes me feel uneasy.”

“You said it meets all the criteria, which I understand,” she added, addressing Sadowsky. “But to me, it doesn’t seem fair.”

“The fact that there’s a tax break going to the homeowner, no community benefit coming out of that tax break, and we are facing our homelessness crisis, our revenue caps – it just doesn’t sit well with me,” she explained.

Sadowsky concurred that “there are equity issues across the board in preservation and any kind of zoning.”

“What we are working on, very diligently, is extending educational opportunities in East Austin … that have all been covered by the East Austin survey to work with property owners to develop either nominations for landmark designations for houses in East Austin, or (historic) districts,” he said.

Sadowsky explained that the local taxing authorities “have taken great steps to make sure those tax breaks are in line with the benefits of preservation” by capping abatements at $8,500 – $2,500 from city taxes, $2,500 from county taxes and $3,500 from AISD taxes.

He continued, “I’ll also argue, too, that preserving a home like this and celebrating it teaches the community about our history. This is a home that was built in the 1920s at the height of prosperity, and this is a home that was built by someone who was at the top of his game at the time. It definitely expresses the level of prosperity of the 1920s, but also it’s an architectural statement.”

Sadowsky said that his office was working to expand preservation education at AISD, an effort that Council Member Flannigan said he’d like to know more about, along with other programming in the community.

Flannigan said he had a long-standing issue with the way the city determines whether a property has met the “historic associations” criteria used to justify historic zoning.

“I think we have a really low threshold for that right now,” he said. “I think we need a different definition for what ‘significant’ means when we are talking about historic persons, groups, institutions and businesses. I don’t know that because someone owned a business in Austin they are significant,” he said. “Having their name mentioned in a Statesman article once or twice, I’m not sure that rises to the threshold.”

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