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Planning Commission takes a pass on District 10 historic zoning recommendation

Monday, September 18, 2023 by Elizabeth Pagano

A bid for historic zoning in Old West Austin left the Planning Commission divided at their most recent meeting.

Owners of the Griffin House at 2502 Jarratt Ave. are seeking a historic designation that will protect the home from changes and offer tax abatement in return. Planning commissioners remained split evenly, so the zoning case will move on without a recommendation from the body. 

The building is an example of the 1930s’ colonial-revival style of architecture. In addition, the house was once home to Judge Meade F. Griffin, who served on both the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals and was the Texas assistant attorney general, and Dorothy Griffin, who was a prominent figure in the child welfare movement and credited with the relocation of Save the Children from Dallas to Austin. The house was determined eligible for landmark zoning in 2016 by then-Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. 

Though there have been several alterations to the structure over the years, Historic Preservation Officer Kalan Contreras told the commission that the home continued to convey the 1930s style in a manner deserving of landmarking. Because the changes to the home were approved by the preservation office and done to the rear and side of the house, she said, they did not impact the overall architectural form, which retains its historic features. 

Kristina Kupferschmid, who prepared the application for historic zoning, told commissioners that the building retains the original form, plan and massing of the historic building. She explained that the owner decided to move forward with historic zoning to help play a part in preserving Old West Austin. Though the home is in a National Register historic district, that designation offers little protection to its historic fabric, practically speaking.

“She’s seen a number of old houses in the historic district demolished and replaced with new houses. On her street, something like 10 historic houses have been demolished and replaced with new houses since the historic district was designated in 2003,” said Kupferschmid. “I don’t think this is an extremely rare type of house in Austin, but I do think these types of houses are getting demolished, especially in Old West Austin.” 

Despite the endorsement from city preservation staff and unanimous support from Historic Landmark commissioners, Planning Commissioner Awais Azhar remained concerned about the changes to the home over the years and said that he could not support historic landmarking.

“This is a massively altered structure,” said Azhar. He said he was worried “opening a door” to flimsy preservation cases in the future, saying it did not have the degree of integrity seen in other cases and that the colonial revival style “had been lost” over the years.

Commissioner Grayson Cox noted that the house, from the street, looked almost the same as it did in 2016.

“I feel like us making a judgment as to which aesthetic components somehow disqualify the house against all of the people who are actually experts in historic preservation and serve on our historic commission – it just seems kind of odd to me,” he said.

In her remarks, Commissioner Felicity Maxwell said that she was glad that the issue of equity was raised at the meeting. 

“Obviously, Austin has a lot of history. We have managed to preserve some parts of it much better than others,” she said. “While I appreciate that the owners have thoughtfully brought this forward, I do really just want to raise the fact that if this was in a different place or of a slightly different style, this might not be something we would consider, necessarily.”

Cox questioned the sincerity of this argument. 

“I’ve been on this commission long enough to see historic preservation cases come before this commission that are in disadvantaged areas of this city, and have been unfortunately voted down,” he said. “I think if we do talk about equity, we need to look back at the history and actually dive into that.”

In two votes, Planning commissioners remained split on historic zoning for the property, with Commissioners João Paulo Connolly, Alice Woods, Greg Anderson, Patrick Howard, Maxwell, and Azhar voting against and Nadia Barrera-Ramirez abstaining from the vote. The case will now proceed to City Council without a recommendation from the Planning Commission.

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