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Demolition case reveals shortcomings in city’s historic preservation policies

Thursday, September 8, 2022 by Kali Bramble

A monthslong debate over an East Austin bungalow has ended in a victory for the property owner, with City Council voting to reject historic zoning last Thursday.

The home, located at 1403 E. Cesar Chavez St., initially came to the Historic Landmark Commission as a demolition request in January. Despite its ruling that the site met the threshold for historic zoning, the Planning Commission and Council ultimately sided with owner Bradley Harrison, who argued that rehabilitation would prove too great a financial burden.

“I realized that the cost is just too much,” said Council Member Pio Renteria, who had previously asked to postpone the item for further consideration. “I’m willing to go ahead and withdraw my opposition with the understanding that (the owners) put out a plaque or some kind of marker acknowledging the history of this site.”

Built in 1925, the Tofie and Bertha Balagia house served as a residence for the family behind Balagia Produce Company, a long-standing institution providing meat and produce both to the surrounding community and via contracts with the state of Texas. It is one of hundreds of sites flagged as architecturally and historically significant by the East Austin Historic Resources Survey conducted in 2016.

While Historic Preservation staff ruled that the Craftsman-style bungalow held a “high degree of architectural integrity,” engineering reports suggested otherwise, making the case that years of deterioration and termite infestation had left the home unsalvageable. Harrison, who purchased the property to house venture capital firm Scout Ventures, reports he has been unable to insure the house in its present state.

“I appreciated having a chance to go over and look at the Balagia house … and it’s just sad,” Council Member Leslie Pool said. “There’s nothing to be done about it at this point … the insurance policy I believe lapses today, and the owner wasn’t able to get it reinsured despite trying really, really hard.”

After seeing years of similar demolition cases, Council wondered whether broader policy solutions might help to proactively address such disputes. Mayor Steve Adler noted that the Historic Preservation Office, which is currently unequipped to conduct its own engineering reports, may need additional resources, while Council Member Kathie Tovo added that the city could more effectively invest in historic stewardship.

“One of the things I think we need to take a look at is getting our staff the resources to address this kind of situation,” Adler said. “In a case where the property owner has an engineering report, if our staff takes the position that it’s wrong, we have to figure out how to resource them to make that case. I don’t know that I could vote for anything other than the reports we have, and it’s a great disadvantage to our staff trying to protect something historic.”

“We recently put some funding toward doing a historic survey … if we’re going to identify historic assets, we need to find ways to be able to support those assets when they come here to Council,” Tovo said. “I’m not sure exactly what the solutions are, but low-cost loans, other kinds of more proactive programs to keep those structures in our community, those are something I think we should work toward.”

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