Tuesday, September 22, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Board of Adjustment debates the value of maintaining area character

Swapping primary and secondary residences is an approach to creating larger living spaces for homeowners that has become a popular tactic for preserving homes that contribute to area character. However, at the Sept. 14 meeting of the Board of Adjustment, members debated whether preservation of area character was a disingenuous “get-out-of-jail-free card” for those looking to maximize the development potential and value of their lots.

“We act like retaining an existing building prevents gentrification,” Board Member Rahm McDaniel said. “I don’t think we should maintain that facade anymore.”

Other board members pushed back, saying that maintaining an original home and thereby area character as part of a variance, benefits those moving into a neighborhood as much as it does those already living in the area. “It has to do with what people are looking for in a neighborhood and the feel they are looking for when they walk down the street,” Board Member Brooke Bailey explained.

Board Member Jessica Cohen agreed with those on the board who advocated for the virtues of preservation, saying she votes in favor of maintaining area character in order to keep a neighborhood from becoming “overly modernized.” She noted that maintaining existing structures becomes even more important in neighborhoods where gentrification is actively displacing longtime residents, such as the Springdale neighborhood.

The property that incited the discussion is a single-family lot at 4700 Milburn Lane, which has an 800-square-foot structure sitting on the lot. The property owners came before the board to request a variance to allow the existing structure to become a secondary unit while they built a two-story, 2,500-square-foot primary unit at the back of the lot.

John Flowers, the applicant and owner of the East Austin property, told board members this inverted plan will echo the layout of his two neighboring lots that both have multi-story residences at the rear of the property. Flowers pointed to two protected trees at the front of the lot as well as a desire to maintain area character as the hardship that required him to request the variance.

The board voted unanimously to grant the variance, with the condition that the existing home on the property retain its size in the future.

Bailey emphasized that part of the applicant’s justification for requesting the variance was to maintain the original character of the neighborhood. Therefore, it was within the board’s purview to request that the home remains in its historic configuration.

“I think that we are using aesthetics as a substitute for character and I think it’s turned into a get-out-of-jail-free card for gentrification,” McDaniel argued. He said character was much more than the look of an area. “Let’s not pretend people aren’t being pushed out of Springdale,” he reminded the board.

Based on the repartee between members, Board Member Yasmine Smith said, “I think it would behoove us as a group to really sit down and have that discussion about what does character mean …. I think that could really elevate the conversation to the Council.” She noted that defining a clear meaning of character could help inform the city’s efforts to stabilize it within rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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City of Austin Board of Adjustment: The city's Board of Adjustment is a quasi-judicial body that decides on variances, special exceptions and can issue interpretations of code.

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