Dear Friends and Media,
Yesterday I learned about a plan to convert the Mathias Residence at 607 W. Yandell Drive in Sunset Heights into a luxury bed & breakfast. The Tudor-style mansion was designed by Trost & Trost for Albert and Frieda Cohen Mathias and built in 1912. It is absolutely spectacular, both inside and out, and remarkably well preserved. In fact, it is one of the finest homes in Texas.
The buyer is a local mortgage banker who engaged an agent named Allison Dillard from Keller Williams Realty. He has the property under contract for the next four months and in the meantime hopes that the seller, Amparo Berhens, will be able to change its zoning from residential (R3) to commercial (C1), which would require approval by the nine-person City Plan Commission.
Tuesday and Wednesday, Ms. Dillard distributed the attached flyer throughout Sunset Heights announcing the plan and inviting the public to RSVP for a dinner and Q & A this evening at 6:00pm. The flyer states that the B & B would have five rooms and a cafe at ground level.
There are some potential obstacles to this plan, and Ms. Dillard and her buyer will have to work hard if they hope to overcome them:
- ADA compliance. Once the property is re-zoned as commercial, there will be structural modifications mandated by federal law aimed at accommodating physically disabled individuals. These changes would include ramps and potentially wheelchair lifts and could require widening certain doorways and other changes. There may also need to be an external stairway added to the upper floor. Such changes could negatively impact the historical integrity of the home.
- Zoning. The seller would need to convince the City Plan Commission and possibly City Council that this plan is compatible with the Sunset Heights National Register Historic District, as the property has both an H-overlay and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Yandell Drive in Sunset Heights is a residential street lined with stately historic homes.
- Parking. There is no legal place for anyone to park next to the property. The access space in front of the garage and the strip of land abutting the alley are owned by the El Paso County Historical Society next door, and a permit is required to park on W. Yandell Drive between 9am and 11pm. The plan is to have valet parking, shuttling guests to a lot at the bottom of the street, at the corner of Santa Fe. There is currently free parking on Corto Way, but permits will likely be required there soon. Parking will be a major challenge.
- Sale contract. At a community meeting yesterday with Allison Dillard, there was a suggestion that a covenant could be added to the sale contract prohibiting any repartitioning of the building interior in perpetuity in order to conserve its historical aspect. Yet, the buyer would need to install ample bathrooms at ground level and to restructure and expand the existing kitchen. And then there are the ADA compliance issues. The language in the contract has the potential to be complicated and may not completely prevent controversial modifications in the future.
- Noise and activity. The agent stated that the buyer will apply for a beer and wine license for the ground-level “brunch cafe.” She also indicated that the residence may host special events, such as weddings. One imagines large groups convening inside and outside the home, with quite a bit of noise and activity on a regular basis.
- The future. Once a property is classified as commercial, it can be used for a variety of purposes. A covenant in the sale contract can prevent certain uses or activities, but what about future owners? What if the property were converted from a B & B into another type of business that the neighborhood might not appreciate, like a night club or flea market? There are ways to modify or eliminate covenants with the help of clever attorneys.
At this point, I am not saying that this plan should be rejected by the community, but the buyer, who seems to be well intentioned, does have an uphill struggle to convince the residents of Sunset Heights and the public at large that this is an appropriate use for a Trost masterpiece and a positive contribution to one of the oldest historic neighborhoods in El Paso. After all, the Mathias Residence is not a dilapidated building. It is in pristine condition and needs no modification to serve its current function as a single-family home.
We will be following this issue closely as things develop.
Enjoy your evening.