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Travis Heights residents put up a fight to preserve century-old fourplex

Wednesday, January 18, 2023 by Kali Bramble

The Historic Landmark Commission kicked off 2023 with a bang last Wednesday, with nearly a dozen Travis Heights residents taking the stand to oppose demolition of a century-old home on the corner of East Monroe Street and Newning Avenue.

The house at 409 E. Monroe St., which has been a rental fourplex since the 1930s, was purchased last spring by developer Oam Parkash, who intends to replace it with a brand new single-family home. For now, those plans remain in question, after an hour of public testimony and debate concluded with the case’s postponement.

The commotion began when confusion arose between plans for the site and adjacent 407 E. Monroe St., a newer home also purchased by Parkash and approved for demolition late last year. When a notice to demolish the older house next door appeared without warning, panicked calls to City Hall revealed that a second permit to tear down 409 E. Monroe had been released in error.

Shaken by the close call, neighbors allied with the South River City Citizens Neighborhood Association to make a case for preservation, arguing that the home helps define a highly trafficked intersection at the center of the Travis Heights-Fairview Park National Register district.

“Demolishing this home would destroy one of Austin’s last, if not only, remaining century corners, where all four homes at an intersection are over 100 years old,” said neighbor Joel Rasmussen. “It’s anchored by four landmark properties that have housed carpenters, writers, chefs and teachers, as well as some of Austin’s great musicians.”

The lot’s new owners see things differently. Parkash’s attorney, Terry Irion, pointed to the home’s structural issues and noncompliant encroachment onto the neighboring lot as major obstacles to redevelopment, adding that the stalled demolition permit had also placed the construction project next door on hold.

“The city can’t have it both ways, they can’t have him go through the enormous expense of trying to reconstruct the interior of this house that has been ripped into a bunch of tacky little apartments, and then also suffer the loss of the right to develop at 407,” Irion said. “He bought two legally platted lots, which entitles him to develop two single-family or SF-3 duplex homes on each lot.”

After the heated exchange, commissioners opted to postpone action on historic zoning to their February meeting, granting both neighbors and their understaffed office further time to make their case. In the meantime, commissioners are holding out hope that the developer will come around to a good-faith consideration of alternatives, adding that noncompliance issues could be hammered out with the help of the Planning and Zoning Department.

“I would ask that this developer step back and really look creatively at what they have purchased,” Commissioner Ben Heimsath offered. “There are many opportunities to work constructively with the commission that could produce a very valuable restored house as well as a wonderful market-rate structure that could both fit quite successfully on this property.”

Those curious about the volunteer-led effort to preserve the Travis Heights-Fairview Park Historic District can learn more here.

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