Then There's This: Razing History

Old home set for demolition to make way for parking lot

West Austin neighbors cried foul when an asbestos removal contractor hired by Cirrus Logic removed the windows from this historic home prior to a hearing on a requested demolition permit, which the Historic Landmark Commission approved Monday.
West Austin neighbors cried foul when an asbestos removal contractor hired by Cirrus Logic removed the windows from this historic home prior to a hearing on a requested demolition permit, which the Historic Landmark Commission approved Monday. (Courtesy of Ted Siff)

Demolishing old houses over neighbors' objections is a timeworn tradition in Central Austin neighborhoods. Sometimes the demolition starts before the permit is even granted, and is easily explained away with a "whoops" apology.

On Monday night, the Historic Landmark Commission gave the green light for another demolition of a home, over neighbors' objections, effectively clearing the way for a surface parking lot on the western edge of Downtown. The commissioners clearly didn't relish the idea of losing the 1920s era home to a parking lot, but city preservation staff insisted that there was no architectural significance to warrant historic landmark status. Still, the commission encouraged the property owners, Cirrus Logic Inc., to delay razing the home to allow neighbors time to strategize a plan to relocate the house.

Members of the Original Austin Neigh­borhood Association – a group that formed in the first decades after Austin's founding, according to its website – is trying to relocate the home before bulldozers arrive at the school-bus-yellow house at 606 Rio Grande. The house, tucked off of West Sixth, in what used to be a quiet, residential neighborhood, was last home to the famed French restaurant Aquarelle before it closed in 2011. The property was acquired by a real estate investor who secured entitlements for the property, which includes a garage apartment, and then sold it to Austin-based Cirrus in 2012. Ted Siff, president of the neighborhood group, says he's hoping to enlist at least a couple of City Council members to help fashion a plan to relocate the home to nearby property.

The Rio Grande house is one of four properties Cirrus has purchased in the neighborhood. One of those, in the 700 block of West Avenue, is on this week's Council agenda for first reading on a rezoning case; here, Cirrus wants to build a parking garage along Shoal Creek. Karen Armstrong, an OANA board member, has expressed concerns about the company acquiring property in the area without a specific plan for what it intends to do with the parcels.

Commissioners last month postponed action on the 606 Rio Grande property because of an outcry from neighbors that the house was being dismantled while the demolition permit request was pending. They expressed frustration over the number of demo projects that "inadvertently" start before the commission has even considered permit requests; they also advised staff to try to implement steps to prevent eager beavers from jumping the gun on other potential tear-downs. On a related demo matter, City Council earlier this month approved a rewrite of the demolition permit ordinance to extend the lifespan of the permit from six months to two years. The vote was 5-1 with Council Member Laura Morrison dissenting, arguing that such an extension might work against public recourse. In the 606 Rio Grande case, an asbestos removal contractor hired by Cirrus removed and threw away windows from one section of the structure, and previous owners extracted columns from the exterior and interior that held sentimental value (they returned them when they were alerted that the demo permit hadn't been granted). "We were as surprised as you were last month when we were hearing tales of construction crews demo'ing the house and taking stuff out," Cirrus attorney Richard Suttle told the commission.

"It is extremely unsettling to get calls on a Saturday from people saying [the home] is being pulled apart," Commissioner Terri Myers told city Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, noting that the incident preceded the hearing on the permit request. "Our concern is that those applications come to us and we either approve them or deny them."

Myers and Chair Laurie Limbacher* favored initiating historic zoning for the site to allow more time for independent research on the structure's historic significance. But the votes didn't align in that direction, so the commission approved the demo request with the recommendation that Cirrus cooperate with those who are trying to spare the home.

Siff, like other property owners in the area, fears the market will shift in a direction that will force Cirrus to change its expansion plans. "Then," he said, "we'll be left with a surface parking lot where a French restaurant in a 90-year-old building used to be."

Historic Landmark Commission Chair Laurie Limbacher was incorrectly identified as Libby Linebarger in the print edition and the original online version of this story. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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Historic Landmark Commission, Original Austin Neighborhood Association, Cirrus Logic Inc., Ted Siff, Aquarelle

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