Landmark commissioners delay Travis Heights demolition

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Wednesday April 6, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

Amid the proposal to lose another historic home in Travis Heights, historic landmark commissioners have delayed their decision until another day.

On the table is the complete demolition of the 1937 house on Kenwood Ave. 1803 to build a two-story house with an in-ground pool on the property. Because the House is a contributing resource in a National Registry district, the case can be delayed up to 180 days. The commissioners voted unanimously to postpone it to May 4th.

“I’d like to give the owner a little more time to think,” said Commissioner Kevin Koch.

Ben Goudy, the spoke to the commissioners on behalf of the owner and said that since the house alone does not deserve a historic monument, they were asking for the demolition permit to move forward.

“I appreciate and respect the views expressed here… But the owner has asked that we go ahead and get the demolition permit. So that’s what I’m here for,” Goudy said. “It’s a speculative new build.”

Although no one else spoke out in favor of demolition, several neighbors spoke out against it, urging the owner to build instead to expand the existing 84-year-old home.

Neighbor Paula Kothmann explained that while there was a high bar for granting historic zones to individual buildings in Austin, the home in question was part of a historic neighborhood. She pointed out that there are ways to extend a historic home to preserve its character from the street while adding more modern amenities and square footage.

“We’ve also spoken to developers who found that they really made a lot more profit by reusing and expanding a house they already had, rather than tearing it down (and) starting over,” Kothmann said. “We just want developers to realize that this historical designation is there so they can start a conversation with us.”

A Historic Landmark Commission committee reviewed the plans for the new home and found that the proposed new home was incompatible with the one Travis Heights-Fairview Park National Register District. Instead, explained Amber Allen, who is with the city’s Historic Preservation Office, they found that “the proposed design was a barrier to the area” and “strong” and recommended moving parking to the side and front of the home one story to make the design more accessible and congruent with the one story houses that populate the street.

“It deviates significantly from the historic streetscape,” Allen said. “Although changes were made to improve the design, the project still falls short of applicable standards, primarily due to the mass scale, orientation and material choices of the proposed structure.”

These concerns were reflected in an email from Frank Clark, who wrote opposing the plan.

“Individual rights do not replace the community as a whole,” he wrote. “We designated Travis Heights as worthy of a National Historic District for a reason. Anyone making an investment in our community should understand the need to maintain the uniqueness of homes here and long term value. The demolition of charming homes could benefit speculators in the short term, but at the cost of our community with irrevocable losses.”

Commissioner Witt Featherston focused his comments on the missed opportunity to build more units on the property.

“I feel like I’m going to be an old man shaking his fist at the weather over these things,” Featherston said. “In a better functioning land development act, couldn’t we have a four family home instead of another single family home with a pool? … I don’t think Travis Heights has a proud history of personal pools that needs to be maintained. There must be a better future where we can have more neighbors instead of more pools.”

The property was just one of seven houses in Travis Heights scheduled for demolition on the Landmark Commission’s agenda. “Over the past year, this neighborhood has been heavily demolished, although it is now a National Register district. So there’s a lot of concern,” said Chairwoman Terri Myers.

“Every neighborhood is like a picture book,” said Melanie Martinez of Travis Heights. “Houses are chapters in history. Then you start tearing out the pages and then you have no more story.”

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