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Landmark Commission postpones decision to deliberate on historic designation

Monday, March 29, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

At last week’s meeting of the Historic Landmark Commission, commissioners reviewed a rehabilitation case at 1601 Brackenridge St.

The home, which was built in 1915, was first inhabited by William and Lettie Webster Davis, two teachers at the Texas School for the Deaf. According to city documents, the couple taught “during a time of great upheaval in the methods of teaching deaf students and successfully adapted their teaching methods accordingly.”

The property’s links to the world of education continued throughout much of the 20th century.

In the mid-80s, the house was converted into the Montessori House of Children, an arrangement that operated until fairly recently.

According to the new owner, who attended the meeting, he acquired the house two months ago and is looking to make a number of upgrades and renovations that impact its design.

In a rehabilitation proposal submitted to city staff, seven project specifications are listed, ranging from smaller things like restoring the front porch to bigger things like adding a second floor to the property.

The most significant addition is the construction of an accessory dwelling unit that the owner plans to live in. An ADU is defined as “a secondary dwelling unit with complete independent living facilities for one or more persons” on a single-family lot.

In recent years, ADUs have become an increasingly important part of housing affordability discussions in urban development. One report from the R Street Institute concluded that, “At a time when many housing markets are experiencing severe supply constraints and housing affordability is under stress nationwide, accessory dwelling unit legalization represents a low-profile free-market solution that requires little from government actors beyond getting out of the way.”

In 2015, the city of Austin adopted adopted a number of regulations on ADUs limiting their size and ability to be rented out long term, and loosened restrictions on things like driveway requirements and building separation distances.

One of the primary goals of the restoration project on Brackenridge is to keep history intact. According to the project proposal, the owner promises not to “alter or remove historic features unless they are deteriorated beyond repair.”

The care and thoroughness of the detailed proposal was well-received. Commission Chair Terri Myers told the owner, “I’m glad that you’ve taken over this property.”

Before the commissioners could vote, however, Elizabeth Brummett with the Historic Preservation Office advocated for more deliberation and potentially initiating the historic designation process, ultimately postponing a final decision until next month.

In response, the homeowner made clear that his preference was to move the process along “and not delay things too much more,” but reluctantly, he consented to postponement.

Commissioner Ben Heimsath told the homeowner, “what you will need from (the commission) is both a partial demolition permit as well as the initiation of (historic) zoning, and I believe that’s what we would be looking at on the agenda next month.”

In the end, the commission voted unanimously to revisit the issue next month.

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