Monday, November 25, 2019 by Austin Monitor

Reporter’s Notebook: Code warrior

Nineteenth-century home discovered in Northeast Austin… Homes dating prior to the 20th century are rare in Texas. Therefore, discovering one is a momentous event. Historic Landmark commissioners expressed excitement at the announcement from Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky that the home at 1208 E. Howard Lane is from the mid-19th-century settlement of the Dessau community, a small homestead settlement of German heritage settlers. “Whatever shape this is in … there’s nothing else like it,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath. The date of the blockhouse was confirmed by Bob Ward of the Travis County Historical Commission, who has visited the property in person. Although the home has later additions, the original structure is intact under a layer of stucco. The property was listed on the commission’s Nov. 18 agenda as an application for demolition by homebuilders D.R. Horton, whose representative noted that the homebuilder is waiting for final plat approval for a planned community, so a decision on the home’s historic status is time-sensitive. To get the ball rolling and give the nearly 170-year-old structure a chance at preservation, the commission postponed the case until December. Although commissioners agreed that they would like to start the historic designation process, several commissioners shared that they will not attend the meeting next month, and without a supermajority, the home cannot be designated historic against an owner’s wishes. Instead, the commission plans to initiate the process in December. Commissioners Emily Hibbs, Kelly Little and Alex Papavasiliou were absent.

U-G-L-Y… There are many reasons historic homes are not preserved in the city, but aesthetic preference is not usually one of them. Nonetheless, Ross Rathgeber of Southwest Destructors told the Historic Landmark Commission at its Nov. 18 meeting that he did not believe the house at 3303 Southill Circle was worth preserving. “The most significant feature of the house is that it’s ugly,” he said. The West Austin home is a split-level 1963 construction that was the home of John Coyle White, who served as the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture from 1950-77. But Rathgeber did not feel that White’s career was illustrious enough to designate his previous home historic. “Texas agricultural commissioner is a pretty minor office in the state of Texas,” he said. “It’s just not that big a deal.” To illustrate, he bet that no one in the room could name more than three agricultural commissioners who held the office in Texas. Commissioner Terri Myers, however, named three right off the bat, including former Gov. Rick Perry. Another argument from Rathgeber to forgo preservation centered around the columns on the front porch. He pointed to a letter from Jack Balagia Jr., the son of later homeowners, indicating that the distinctive columns on the porch were added during the 1980s. The revelation that such a prominent feature of the home was changed outside of the historic time window was ultimately one of the deciding factors that prompted the commission to unanimously release a demolition permit to the owners. Still, the argument that the home did not deserve to be preserved because it was unattractive inspired an admiring nod from Myers. “It’s almost refreshing to hear someone come and tell us that the house needs to go down because it’s ugly. I’ve never heard that before,” she said. Commissioners Emily Hibbs, Kelly Little and Alex Papavasiliou were absent.

Jim Duncan slays code in rhyme… Jim Duncan, vice chair of the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission, former chair of CodeNEXT Citizen Advisory Group and former director of Austin Office of Land Development Services, has strong concerns about Council’s planned adoption of the new Land Development Code. He told the Austin Monitor he is especially worried about mistakes that will be incorporated into the code if Council simultaneously adopts the new zoning map. He said he agrees with Council Member Ann Kitchen, who last week told her colleagues they should not adopt any maps until staffers have had a chance to incorporate changes proposed by the public. Duncan went a step further, saying, “It takes about a year to figure out the mistakes you’ve made and to clean it up.” It will be much harder to clean up those mistakes if Council has adopted the map, he said.

In addition to his other qualifications for commenting on changes to the code, Duncan is something of a poet. He sent the following rhyming couplets to the Austin Monitor and to City Council:

Where a new land use code has long been needed,
But too many times its delivery has been impeded.
Where its rules are still not easy to follow and find,
And will keep requiring help of the expensive kind.
Where stakeholder influence it is very easy to tell,
Has come largely from the local pro-growth cartel.
Where its growth projections are said to be fakes,
In order to justify the massive upzonings it makes.
Where removal of standards for use compatibility,
Will lead to widespread neighborhood instability.
Where our desperate need for housing affordability,
Too often takes a backseat to enhanced profitability.
Where new homes will provide much less green,
And many residents will live like a canned sardine.
Where of our heritage past there will be few traces,
When it comes to homes, stores, trees and places.
Where war against the car is taken to a new height,
By ensuring there are no parking spaces in sight.
Bottom line: It is mainly a deregulating Trojan Horse,
Which Austinites will fully realize only in due course.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Jessi Devenyns and Jo Clifton.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

Historic Landmark Commission: The city’s Historic Landmark Commission promotes historic preservation of buildings and structures. The commission also reviews applications and permits for historic zoning and historic grants.

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