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Preservationists lament the eroding of Travis Heights at Historic Landmark Commission

Tuesday, March 14, 2023 by Kali Bramble

The city’s Historic Landmark Commission mourned the steady chipping away of homes recognized in the Travis Heights-Fairview Park National Register district last week, with yet another falling to the housing market’s demand for more contemporary, spacious designs.

The application to demolish 1804 Brackenridge St., presently a 1.5-story Craftsman bungalow built in 1920, stoked neighborhood opposition and resistance from commissioners but ultimately failed to meet the bar needed for historic zoning. Commissioners voted 7-3 to release the hold on new construction, with commissioners Ben Heimsath, Harmony Grogan and Chair Terri Myers in opposition.

“The residents of Travis Heights have worked since 2004 to get their National Register district,” said Myers, who authored the district’s nomination. “But in the past two years, we’ve seen them go down like dominoes because it’s an honor rather than a mandate to retain contributing buildings … I’m sympathetic to those speaking in opposition. It’s more like speaking in desperation.”

Mickey Peavler, architect of the flat-roofed two-story home and pool that will take the bungalow’s place, said that while the owner briefly considered remodeling and adding to it, high costs ultimately rendered that route untenable. Neighbors Francesco Passanti and Susan Armstrong Fisher took to the stand in protest, noting that the imposing, minimalist design added insult to injury in the loss of the century-old home.

“The new house looks as if it’s in the middle of nowhere, and is even presented that way in the drawings, completely out of context,” said Passanti, a professor of architecture at the University of Texas. 

“Demolishing this property would eliminate one of the last few blocks in Travis Heights with all contributing homes in a row,” said Armstrong Fisher. “As we know, one demolition begets another … and Travis Heights is losing its character one by one.”

While preservationists celebrated the induction of Travis Heights-Fairview Park into the National Register of Historic Places in 2021, they have since been dismayed at the unfettered bulldozing of its charming but modest 20th century homes. While Local Historic District zoning offered in neighborhoods like Hyde Park and Castle Hill provides greater protections, the application process is notoriously difficult and only getting harder thanks to the Texas Legislature.

Hoping to encourage a more favorable bargain between the owner and neighbors, commissioners opted to postpone the Brackenridge case for several months. But with the clock running out on a 180-day time limit and no grounds for landmarking the property independently, sentiments were all they could offer.

“I express my empathy and will add disappointment that our Land Development Code is somewhat complicit in the wealth inequality that is taking over this city,” said Commissioner Witt Featherston. “Travis Heights is going to turn into a neighborhood where everybody has their own pool, and that’s not how it was intended.”

“I do note (this block) is the gateway to Travis Heights; it’s also adjacent to South Congress, which may be a canary in the coal mine,” said Commissioner Kevin Koch, who made the motion to release the demolition permit. “We see this region turning into a very contemporarily designed district of its own, which I think does not bode well for South Congress itself – something I hope the city considers.”

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