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Council rejects historic zoning for East Seventh Street house

Tuesday, August 2, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Lacking the nine votes needed to overcome the property owner’s objection, City Council denied a request last week from the Historic Landmark Commission to designate “a good example of folk Victorian architecture” as historic. The Carlson-Colunga house at 902 E. Seventh Street was built between 1903 and 1906 by Swedish immigrants Victor and Carl Carlson, according to the East Austin Historic Resource Survey. Because the owner opposed the historic designation, city regulations required nine votes to declare the property historic.

Council heard conflicting motions but took just one vote on the matter. After Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison made a motion to deny historic zoning, Council Member Leslie Pool made what she called a substitute motion to designate the property as historic. Mayor Steve Adler told her if she disagreed with the original motion, she should simply vote no. However, he said they should vote on Pool’s motion first – even though he said they were violating Robert’s Rules of Order. Harper-Madison did not object.

The six votes in favor of historic zoning were from Council members Chito Vela, Kathie Tovo, Pio Renteria, Pool, Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter, and Adler. Voting no were Harper-Madison and Council members Paige Ellis, Ann Kitchen and Mackenzie Kelly. Council Member Vanessa Fuentes did not participate, so there were only 10 votes.

It was the final item on a very long Council agenda, concluding at 11:42 p.m. If Adler had wanted to prolong the discussion he could have called for a vote on first reading only, and then the matter would have been on the future agenda. However, seeing little likelihood of final passage, he took the 6-4 vote as a final statement on Council’s position.

According to Kalan Contreras with the Historic Preservation Office, the house meets criteria not only for its design, but because it reflects residential patterns in East Austin. The house had a variety of tenants, both Swedish and Mexican immigrants. Contreras said the final occupants of the house were the Colunga sisters, who occupied it from the 1930s to the 1970s.

Staff members and the Planning Commission agreed with the Historic Landmark Commission’s request to zone the little house historic. Contreras told Council the landmark commission initiated historic zoning when it reviewed an application to move the house to Kyle. The property owner, RPC East 7th St LLC, opposed the historic designation, with agent Nic Costello telling Council that the house did not meet the criteria for historic zoning and that neither the house nor its occupants should be considered historically significant.

However, it was opposition from District 1’s Harper-Madison that sealed the property’s fate. She argued that the house had stood vacant for some time and was too expensive for residents of her district to rent as commercial space. Making it historic would only add to the price tag, she said. In addition, she said the little house did not really fit in with the transit-oriented district that the area has become.

Earlier in the day, Council postponed consideration of another proposed historic house, the Tofie and Bertha Balagia house at 1403 E. Cesar Chavez St. Although staff and the Historic Landmark Commission recommended historic zoning, the Planning Commission did not. This house is in Renteria’s district and he wanted the matter postponed.

According to the staff report, “The property is associated with the family behind Balagia Produce, which contributed significantly to commerce in Austin. From 1925 to 1959 this home was owned and occupied by members of the Balagia family. … The business was where many would go to order their holiday turkeys and meats and held the state contract for providing meat to state institutions for many years. Balagia Produce continued to serve the city and surrounding areas, becoming one of the largest suppliers of meat and produce in the state of Texas.” That item will come back to Council on Sept. 1. Because the current owner opposes landmark status, it too will need nine votes to be designated historic.

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

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