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Planning Commission recommends rezoning part of Baker School property historic, in break with landmark commission

Monday, December 7, 2020 by Daniel Salazar

At its Nov. 24 meeting, the Planning Commission voted to zone part of the Baker School property historic, embracing a staff-supported recommendation to omit historic zoning for the surrounding parking lots.

The vote represented a break with the position of the Historic Landmark Commission, which had previously voted to zone the entire property at 3908 Avenue B as historic.

Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said the school was built in 1911, but represents “the history of education in Austin to a much greater extent.”

Sadowsky said one of the attractions of Hyde Park as a middle- to upper-middle-class neighborhood was a neighborhood school like the Baker School.

The Baker School served as a public school until the 1980s. Since the Austin school district sold the property, it has been renovated and rehabilitated for the Alamo Drafthouse.

Sadowsky said it contributes to the Hyde Park local historic district and any changes to the site or building would require a certificate of appropriateness from the Historic Landmark Commission.

“To single out the Baker School as a historic landmark is really a celebration of the building itself and the importance … that it has for the neighborhood and the community in general,” Sadowsky said.

Staff members recommended historic zoning for the Baker School, but not for its surrounding surface parking.

Architect Richard Weiss spoke on behalf of the application, saying the property has been “painstakingly rehabilitated.” He argued the entire remaining parcel should be zoned historic, saying “piecemeal” historic zoning would set a negative precedent.

“I urge you not to look at this as zoning parking lots historic, and rather consider preserving the entire remaining campus in its entirety,” he said.

Weiss said they worked with the city and the neighborhood to zone the one-acre Baker Field on the back of the building for a five-story residential development with 25 percent affordable units. But Weiss said the city bought a portion of the site in March to build a regional detention pond. He encouraged the city to work with the Austin Housing Finance Corporation and the Public Works Department to build housing along with the detention uses.

“We believe that that’s feasible and it was our intention to build housing there and that’s where it belongs,” Weiss said.

Several nearby residents supported historic zoning for the entire property.

“The historic zoning would not preclude affordable housing on this site, as some have mistakenly assumed,” said Susan Moffat with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Plan Contact Team. “It’s a false choice to pit historic recognition of this one-of-a-kind landmark against affordability. Austin is capable of both.”

But Thomas Ates, a Friends of Hyde Park board member, opposed rezoning the whole property historic, since redeveloping the parking lots could be “a great way to add affordable housing around existing buildings.”

“This rezoning will remove almost all opportunities for affordable housing on the property,” he said. “Making the property historic has been known to make it hard or impossible to add housing to any part of the property, even the parking lots.”

Commissioner Greg Anderson motioned for the staff recommendation to be approved. Anderson noted the preservation work done on the property has been excellent.

“But there’s no part of me that could ever purposefully zone surface parking lots historic and give tax breaks to them,” Anderson said. “It almost accidentally preserves surface parking lots … in a way that we just don’t need to try and do, ever.”

Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly said he was more disappointed that the detention pond may prevent housing from rising on the property.

“It’s absolutely tragic and shameful that we’re wasting an opportunity to build 25 percent affordable housing in this neighborhood, which so badly needs more affordable housing,” Paulo said. “I hope we can do better.”

The motion passed unanimously.

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