Photo by city of Austin
Planning Commission fails to recommend historic zoning for downtown tower
Monday, October 17, 2022 by Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission did not have enough votes last Tuesday to recommend historic zoning for the Westgate Tower at 1122 Colorado St., as some members of the commission challenged the idea of giving tax breaks to downtown condo owners.
Commissioners agreed with city staffers and the Historic Landmark Commission that the New Formalist-style tower, built in 1966, is historic. Preservationists say the building meets two criteria for historic zoning: architecture and historic associations. The building, designed by prominent architect Edward Durell Stone, is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite the property’s historic merits, the commission focused on the property tax breaks that the 102 condo owners in the tower would receive if City Council zones the property historic. Some argued that the tax breaks are not deserved and noted that the city would lose revenue needed for important public services. Others, however, argued that tax breaks are not relevant.
In response, applicant Brian Evans said that the commission had gotten sidetracked. “Respectfully, conversation needs to be on whether the Westgate meets the criteria of the program, and that is a resounding yes.”
At a previous hearing, Evans said tax breaks would be reinvested toward building maintenance via higher HOA fees. According to Evans, the tax break amounts to $510,546 for all units combined.
Richard Hardin, the only person to speak against the zoning, raised another potential issue: none of the condo owners had actually applied for historic zoning themselves. Hardin’s lawyer, Bill Aleshire, argued in a memo that Evans, despite being chosen by the Westgate Condominium Association, cannot request historic zoning on behalf of residents without their written consent. “I don’t find where a single owner has signed an application to zone their property,” Hardin said.
Evans responded, “He can say that we do not qualify … but that simply is not true, or city legal would not allow us to be here today.” City staffers and commissioners did not comment on Hardin and Aleshire’s argument.
Commissioners had floated zoning only the building’s lobby and exterior historic so condo owners would not get a tax break, but the Law Department quashed the idea. City code allows historic zoning for parts of parcels but not parts of structures, city lawyers said.
The commission voted 6-3-2 in favor of historic zoning – one vote short of a majority – with commissioners Awais Azhar, James Shieh and Greg Anderson against and Robert Schneider and Yvette Flores abstaining. The case now goes to Council without a recommendation from the commission.
Commissioners said that they hoped to further discuss whether historic properties should deserve tax breaks. Azhar noted that the city has the ability to deny the tax breaks for its portion of property taxes. Kalan Contreras with the Historic Preservation Office said that the city will examine the arguments for and against tax breaks as part of a new equity-based historic preservation plan. Contreras said community engagement for the plan should start this winter and last through 2023.
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