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East Seventh historic zoning case sails through Planning Commission

Tuesday, July 5, 2022 by Kali Bramble

A 116-year-old property at 902 E. Seventh St. stands a fighting chance against demolition following the Planning Commission’s recommendation last Tuesday to zone the site historic.

The single-story folk Victorian home, currently operating as storage space for neighboring restaurant Gabriela’s, was purchased in 2019 as part of a package deal with several nearby properties. Despite claims that it has been difficult to find viable tenants, municipal commissions have now twice ruled the property worth preserving.

“The details on this Victorian are just so intact, it’s remarkable. The site features, the location … on the hill approaching downtown. I just have a hard time believing there’s not a taker to lease this,” said Historic Landmark Commissioner Kevin Koch, who made the motion to initiate historic zoning earlier last month.

Constructed in 1903 to 1906 by Swedish immigrants, the structure was home to a number of settlers, with its longest tenants being the Colunga family, who lived there for 40 years following their immigration from Mexico. The 2016 East Austin Historic Resources Survey identified the property as a potential landmark, noting both its architecture and association with early Austin settlement patterns.

The redevelopment project first surfaced in May as an application for the structure’s relocation to a planned development in Kyle, Texas. According to a presentation before the Historic Landmark Commission, the plan was to repurpose the home into a brick-and-mortar storefront for Leroy and Lewis, an expanding local barbecue business.

“There’s not much of the fabric of this area still intact,” property owner Nick Costello said. “For us, as the property sits, there’s not much functionality, and it’s difficult to look at this asset as any kind of investment for the foreseeable future.”

A month later, the owners have changed their tune, explaining to the Planning Commission that the cost of relocation and potential for damage posed too great a burden. While they insisted they did not view the property as a tear-down, they still oppose historic zoning on the grounds that jumping through regulatory hoops would prove a significant economic strain. Unfortunately for them, commissioners felt such costs did not warrant risking total demolition.

“It sounds like there is a desire to find some kind of economic viability moving forward,” Commissioner James Shieh said. “I have personally done projects that are historic landmarks, and we’ve been able to make viable products that continue to be a part of the community. I feel like a lot of people are fearful of what that ‘H’ means, but we’ve added second stories, and modern touches.”

While 902 E. Seventh St. is still in the running for landmark status, City Council will ultimately make the call to change its zoning. Historically it is quite rare for Council to zone a property historic against an owner’s wishes, with only a handful of exceptions since the 1970s.

“When we talk about historic zoning, a lot of it is about the question, what is the benefit to the public?” Shieh said. “This (house) was my first introduction to walking up and down that street … it did give me that sense of community. It did give me that sense of place and history. To me that is meaningful … and if it is not a tear-down, then it becomes an opportunity.”

Photo by Texas Historical Commission, University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History.

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