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Demolition on San Marcos Street postponed as neighbors resist redevelopment in East Austin

Monday, October 4, 2021 by Kali Bramble

Opinions clashed over the fate of two cottages at 82 San Marcos St. last Monday, as the Historic Landmark Commission evaluated an application for their demolition.

The two homes, built in 1941, are located in the Willow-Spence National Register Historic District in East Austin. After a lively round of public testimony, the commission unanimously approved a vote to postpone the case until its next meeting.

Speaking on behalf of the lot’s new owner was Jim Wittliff, who suggested that city staffers postpone their decision until the buyer clarifies plans for redevelopment. Acknowledging that the existing structures are well maintained, Wittliff added that he would use this time to persuade the applicant to consider the cottages’ relocation over complete demolition.

Testifying in opposition were neighbors Andrea Hill and Sylvia Marroquin, who expressed concerns that the application may set a destructive precedent for the surrounding area.

Hill, whose backyard is across an alley from the proposed demolition, voiced her suspicions that the new owners will redevelop the site into another high-density condominium complex, which have come to symbolize the displacement of historic East Austin communities. “I’m very aware that Rainey Street had the same zoning that we do,” said Hill, “and look what happened to them.”

Marroquin, who is president of the Willow-Spence Neighborhood Association, noted that the permit, if granted, would initiate the first demolition the neighborhood has seen since its establishment as a National Register district. “Many of our neighbors have gone through huge expenses to restore their homes in order to preserve the district,” she said.

Despite its limited jurisdiction, the commission appeared eager to assist in preservation efforts. Addressing Hill and Marroquin, Commissioner Kevin Koch offered his advice: “I strongly encourage you to contact the Historic Preservation Office … to apply for local historic district status, which is the only true protection you can get.”

While newly adopted design standards have made this application process slightly easier, a law passed by the Texas Legislature that took effect this September now requires a supermajority vote to establish new local historic districts, creating new challenges for preservationists. In the meantime, neighbors and staff will have to prove the sufficient architectural or historic significance of individual properties to resist demolitions within the Willow-Spence district.

To this end, Commissioner Ben Heimsath asked staff to reconsider their conclusion that the two cottages did not meet criteria for historic significance. “The property bears complete resemblance to at least another two dozen houses across East Austin,” said Heimsath, proposing the property’s connection to a network of prefab pattern book houses throughout the area. “This could be some prototype of very early affordable housing … which we now seem to be needing to reinvent.”

If neither form of historic zoning can be secured, the future of 82 San Marcos St. ultimately depends on the buyer’s willingness to compromise with the surrounding neighborhood. The case will return to the commission’s docket at its next meeting on Oct. 23.

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