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Photo by City of Austin

Council grants historic zoning to Baker School and parking lots

Thursday, December 17, 2020 by Jonathan Lee

City Council has granted historic zoning to the Baker School property – parking lots and all. No one debated approving the historic landmark designation for the school itself, but the request to include the surrounding parking lots in the variance proved controversial.

“I don’t think we should be preserving parking lots,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said.

The Historic Landmark Commission sided with the applicant in November, while city staff and members of the Planning Commission argued that parking lots, on principle, should not be zoned historic. Council voted 7-3 in favor of the applicant’s request. Council members Natasha Harper-Madison, Jimmy Flannigan and Paige Ellis voted against the motion, with Council Member Alison Alter off the dais.

The former AISD school, at 3908 Avenue B in Hyde Park, was built in 1911 and recently restored to its original state. Council Member Kathie Tovo called the restoration “extraordinary.” Alamo Drafthouse purchased the property from the school district for $10 million in 2019, and moved its offices to the building after the renovation.

The historic zoning decreases the site’s property taxes. The annual tax break is estimated to be $59,655 – which is $11,911 more than if the parking lots were not included.

Council members still wanted to make sure that zoning the parking spaces historic would not preclude future affordable housing at the site. City staffers said it would not, because the site’s Community Commercial (GR) zoning allows for it.

A restored room. (Photo courtesy of Alamo Drafthouse)

The historic designation, they explained, simply requires that any new construction or modification to existing buildings receive approval from the Historic Landmark Commission. This condition was already in place, however, because the building is part of the Hyde Park Local Historic District.

As part of a restrictive covenant, future development on the property must include at least 25 percent affordable housing. Zoning allows for a maximum height of 30 feet.

Because of city parking requirements, such a project might run into parking trouble.

“If you build anything on (the parking lots) at this point or in the future,” said applicant Richard Weiss, “it would take away the parking that’s necessary to occupy the (Baker School) building.”

Council also discussed the possibility of building affordable housing on the adjoining Baker field site, which the city purchased in March to build a water detention pond. Affordable housing had been previously envisioned there.

“When we first started working on this project,” Weiss said, “I had many dreams of an amazing building that could go back there. I would love to see that become a reality.”

The zoning for the Baker field allows structures of up to 50 feet, and the same restrictive covenant applies. Though no concrete plans are in place, city staff members said they would look into the feasibility of building on top of the detention pond.

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