Tuesday, December 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

West Campus home fails to receive required votes for historic designation

The Historic Landmark Commission recently recommended historic zoning for a 19th-century West Campus home at 704 W. 22nd St. against the owner’s wishes. Planning commissioners have now voted to deny the recommendation for historic zoning, preventing the case from moving forward.

“I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher caliber,” said Commissioner James Shieh at the Dec. 10 meeting of the Planning Commission. “Everybody had a life, everybody had a story.”

The commission agreed that the poor condition of the home coupled with the pedestrian history of its residents did not meet the threshold required for historic zoning. A motion to recommend the denial of historic zoning for the structure passed 8-2-1 with commissioners Todd Shaw and Robert Schneider voting against it and Commissioner Carmen Llanes-Pulido abstaining. Commissioners Claire Hempel and Patrick Howard were absent.

In October, the case arrived at the Historic Landmark Commission, where commissioners voted to recommend historic zoning. However, due to new rules from the state Legislature, rezoning a property historic when the owner opposes the effort now requires a supermajority from either the Historic Landmark Commission or the land use commission (in this case, the Planning Commission) to move forward to Council. The Heflybower house case did not receive the adequate number of votes from either commission to move forward to Council for consideration.

Commissioner Conor Kenny said there needs to be a compelling argument in order to rezone a property against an owner’s wishes. “I’m struggling to see what that is in this case,” he explained.

Other commissioners agreed that while a 19th-century home is a rare sight in West Campus, the historical associations of its owners did not reach the bar necessary to immortalize them in history. Additionally, the home has significant changes from its original footprint that have altered the facade. However, these changes were made during the qualifying period of significance, which begins in 1969.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the commission that the home, which is now a student residence, was owned by the Heflybower family for 100 years. During that time, the original owner, George S. Heflybower, was known for running a neighborhood grocery and raising prize-winning chickens. His daughter was one of the trailblazing educators at the Texas School for the Deaf, then known as the Deaf and Dumb Institute when she taught there in 1905.

Beginning in 1976, the home became a rental property for students. The consequence of its transformation into a residence for tenants was that “it was less than well-maintained in its latter years,” Mike McHone, who was representing the property owner, told the commission.

McHone said that the home’s poor state coupled with rising property taxes makes it no longer economically feasible to maintain the home as-is. He noted that the Planning Commission recently recommended adding additional density to the inner areas of West Campus where this home is located, and said that preserving the structure is in opposition to that effort.

When commissioners questioned what the alternative for the property was, McHone remained mum. He told commissioners that “the potential is there” for increased density on the site, but “I’m not at liberty to discuss anything further than that.”

Commissioner Shieh said that economics should not factor into the equation and explained that he attempted to divorce the economic feasibility of maintaining the home from its worth as a historical marker. Nevertheless, he concluded, “I just don’t think this property and the owners (are) raised to the level of historic.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

historic preservation: Official actions of a municipality such as the City of Austin taken to preserve structures with their jurisdiction. Preservation is often accompanied by a property tax exemption.

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