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Partial demolition granted for Avenue A home located outside of historic districts

Friday, August 27, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

Earlier this week, the Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted to co-sign some major redesign plans at 4315 Avenue A, a property located in the Hyde Park neighborhood.

Owner/applicant Nathan Hobbs is seeking to expand the size of the home, which was first constructed around 1921, by partially demolishing it, adding rooms and building a second floor.

Ordinarily, changes this substantial to a property in the Hyde Park area would open up lengthy discussions about preservation and historical value, and draw in quite a bit of community interest, but there’s one factor that simplifies this case quite a bit: The home is not located in a historic district.

Despite being in the Hyde Park area, the home isn’t officially included in the set of homes in the Hyde Park National Register Historic District or the Hyde Park Local Historic District – even though it’s surrounded by homes that are. If the property were located in one of these districts, these changes would be met with a lot more scrutiny.

That said, historic preservation questions weren’t entirely sidestepped, because while 4315 Avenue A is not part of a historic district, it’s still technically eligible for a historic landmark designation due to its age, location and design.

In practice, an important factor in whether a home is considered for landmark designation is if it housed influential Austinites in its past, such as leaders in education, government figures, philanthropists, etc. In the case of 4315 Avenue A, though, this also isn’t a major factor. The home doesn’t have any clear ties to prominent people in Austin’s history.

In spite of the many circumstances simplifying the scope of the case, the city and commission remained skeptical of the proposal and exercised a lot of their soft power, heavily scrutinizing the applicant and his intentions, making it clear that they wanted the house preserved anyway.

At the meeting Monday, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that the city “reluctantly” came to the conclusion that the home does not qualify as a landmark and went on to suggest that the homeowner could instead relocate and donate “the (existing) house to a family for affordable housing,” rather than building a brand-new home at 4315 Avenue A.

In the write-up of the case, city staffers wrote, “Staff honestly wonders why the applicant chooses to keep this building as his proposed addition is going to dwarf it.”

Commissioner Ben Heimsath said that, as he began to “really scrutinize” the plans, it appeared to him as if the owner only wanted to partially demolish the property to take advantage of a loophole in the zoning code that would allow the land to be built out more than usual.

“I’m not sure I’m happy with partial demolition. I’m worried we’re being played here,” Heimsath told the commissioners.

The turning point in the discussion came during a moment of honesty from the applicant. Hobbs told the commission he wasn’t trying to sidestep any rules and gave them this: “I’m sorry, I’m a divorced dad with two children by myself and I’m just trying to save money, actually … I’m actually trying to build a family home for my two children that can accommodate them.”

At this point, Commissioner Kelly Little chimed in, saying she didn’t think that “his motivations for why he’s doing what he’s doing are under the purview of this commission,” and nudged the commissioners to make a final decision.

Commissioner Kevin Koch agreed, saying if the home doesn’t qualify as a historic landmark, “we have no authority there.”

The permit was granted with the caveat that Hobbs would need to create a documentation package, a file with photos, schematics and a narrative history of the home for the archives at the Austin History Center.

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