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Historic Landmark Commission approves nine-story affordable housing proposal

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

While towering, multi-floor designs with little relationship to historic facades have been a thorn in the side of the Historic Landmark Commission in recent months, a proposal for an affordable housing tower behind the historic home at 809 E. Ninth St. received a green light to proceed.

The East Austin project intends to convert the backyard of the Routon-Alvarez-Lopez House into the foundation for a 112-foot residential tower that will provide affordable housing for seniors for the next 99 years. To accommodate the proposed structure and keep a 16-foot buffer between the historic Victorian home and the new residences, the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit affordable housing developer and the owner of the property, will move the house forward 6 feet toward the curb.

“We are seeing this over and over again,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath, who elaborated that massively overscaled structures on historic properties will become the norm in the city center if economics are factored into the equation. “Our job is not to make money for a developer,” he reminded the commission.

In spite of Heimsath’s impassioned plea to consider the integrity of a historic property independently of the economic feasibility of a proposal, the commission voted 8-1 to approve the certificate of appropriateness for the East Austin project. Heimsath voted against the motion.

Other commissioners felt that the context of the house’s location, which is adjacent to Interstate 35 and surrounded by mid-rise structures, is already a shadow of the neighborhood that once existed and made the location an appropriate place to provide affordable housing.

Commissioner Kevin Koch called the historic context of the location “almost comical” while Commissioner Alex Papavasiliou offered his opinion that building with multiple affordable units may alleviate some redevelopment pressures in other areas of the neighborhood. Commissioner Terri Myers expressed her view that passersby will not confuse the historic house with the tower behind it, nor will the tower overshadow the historic resource.

Mark Rogers, executive director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, said the organization already has 850 applications from households looking for affordable senior housing. Units in this structure will run from $350-$700 per month.

Not all nearby neighbors were supportive of the project. Cynthia Nelson, general manager of the Tyndall condominiums, spoke on behalf of the residents, several of whom voiced their own objections, to say the scale of the tower “lacks human context” and is inconsistent with other buildings in the neighborhood.

Rogers explained that due to the project providing affordable housing, the city gave the development corporation additional entitlements that raised the height limits on the site.

In addition to maximizing the amount of affordable housing for seniors in this area of East Austin, Rogers told the commission that the GNDC is committed to preserving historic resources.

“We feel it’s very important to preserve that house. It’s a very important statement about what the neighborhood has fought for,” said Rogers. He added that the question is, “How do we get the most affordable housing there while preserving the important history … of our neighborhood.”

The commission agreed with this view and voted to recommend the certificate of appropriateness. The Texas Historical Commission also reviewed the initial designs and recommended changes. It is currently reviewing the updated designs for formal approval.

Commissioners Kelly Little and Blake Tollett were absent.

Project rendering by La Vista de Lopez.

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