Demolition case reveals flaws in city’s historic preservation policies

Austin City Photo

Thursday, September 8, 2022 by Kali Bramble

A month-long debate over an East Austin bungalow ended in victory for the owner, with the city council voting to reject historic zoning last Thursday.

The house, located at 1403 E. Cesar Chavez St., was first submitted to the Historic Landmarks Commission as a request for demolition in January. Despite its decision that the site met the historic zoning threshold, the Planning Commission and Council ultimately sided with owner Bradley Harrison, who argued that rehabilitation would prove too financially burdensome.

“I realized the cost was just too high,” said Council member Pio Renteria, who had previously asked to defer the item for further consideration. “I’m prepared to go ahead and withdraw my objection on the understanding that (the owners) have put up a plaque or some sort of marker acknowledging the history of this site.”

Built in 1925, the Tofie and Bertha Balagia house served as the residence of the family behind Balagia Produce Company, a long-standing institution providing meat and produce both to the surrounding community and through contracts with the State of Texas. It is one of hundreds of sites flagged as architecturally and historically significant by the East Austin Historic Resources Survey. made in 2016.

While historic preservation staff judged the Craftsman-style bungalow to have a “high degree of architectural integrity”, engineering reports suggested otherwise, claiming that years of deterioration and termite infestation had rendered the irrecoverable house. Harrison, who bought the property to house venture capital firm Scout Ventures, reports that he was unable to insure the house in its current condition.

“I appreciated having the chance to go and see the Balagia house…and it’s just sad,” council member Leslie Pool said. “There is nothing that can be done about it at this stage…the insurance policy, I believe, expires today, and the owner has been unable to reinsure it despite trying very, very hard.”

After seeing years of similar demolition cases, the Council considered whether broader political solutions could help proactively resolve these disputes. Mayor Steve Adler noted that the Office of Historic Preservation, which is currently not equipped to conduct its own engineering reports, may require additional resourceswhile council member Kathie Tovo added that the city could invest more effectively in historic stewardship.

“I think one of the things we need to look at is providing our staff with the resources to deal with this kind of situation,” Adler said. “In a case where the owner has an engineering report, if our staff takes the position that it’s wrong, we have to figure out how to have the resources to make that case. I don’t know if I could vote for anything other than the reports we have, and that’s a big disadvantage for our staff trying to protect something historic.

“We recently invested funds in doing a historical survey…if we want to identify historical assets, we need to find ways to support those assets when they come here to the Council,” Tovo said. “I don’t know exactly what the solutions are, but low-cost loans, other kinds of more proactive programs to maintain those structures in our community, those are things I think we should be working toward.”

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