The future of a longtime retail landmark in West Austin is tied up in what could be the endgame of a 13-year fight over an eyesore of a vacant old house a few blocks south of the store.
Nau’s Enfield Drug has been at 12th and West Lynn streets since 1951. Lambert Labay began working there in 1963. He bought it and has run it since 1971. There’s a soda fountain and grill, a pharmacy and the kind of miscellaneous merchandise findable in most any drug store.
Save for the soda fountain and grill, that also describes every omnipresent CVS and Walgreens. But a place like Nau’s makes you feel better about plunking down your cash or picking up your prescription. It’s a reminder of a less-corporate past, which is what helps make it a neighborhood treasure.
That’s why it’s so weird that its continued existence is linked to a battle with some folks in the neighborhood it has long served. It’s a scuffle that’s been percolating at City Hall since 2003.
“This is the albatross that we’re dealing with,” Laura Labay, Lambert’s daughter, told me.
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The albatross is a family-owned house at 611 West Lynn St. It’s had only two owners since it was built in 1899 (Travis Central Appraisal District records say it was 1910, but city records say 1899), and it has been vacant since about 2003. It’s a mess, buried in city code violations. Labay says there have been problems with vagrants, and she had rabies shots after getting bitten by a raccoon in the house.
The family wants to demolish it to sell the 0.62-acre lot, appraised by the Travis appraisal district at $1,559.130, with the land accounting for $1.5 million of that.
Because the house is in a historic district and is more than 50 years old, the Labays cannot demolish it without city permission. Dolph Dildy, Laura’s uncle, got permission to do that to an old house he owned next door on property that now holds a four-unit condo building.
The Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, which unsuccessfully opposed the demolition of 609 West Lynn St., has its heels dug in on 611 West Lynn St. The family’s most recent request for a demolition permit led to a city staff recommendation for historic landmark designation. Laura Labay told the Historic Landmark Commission on Jan. 25 that her family is in dire financial straits and Nau’s could soon fail. A few weeks later, her father, now 76, had a heart attack, leaving her to run the business.
Selling 611 West Lynn St., in the family since 1948, is the only solution, she said.
“Next year the taxes won’t get paid on the house unless we have a reverse mortgage,” Labay said, “and my parents aren’t in a position to do that, health-wise. All of my dad’s retirement is in that house.”
The annual tax bill is listed at $35,799. Labay said she didn’t make payroll last week, the fifth time that’s happened this year.
“I do realize that just because we have a business in the neighborhood that a lot of people think that we have money and disposable income,” she told the commission in January. “We’re a working family. I’m still scrubbing toilets and flipping burgers, even though I went to college. We’re barely making it.”
Neighbors have started an online fundraising campaign.
“For decades the Labay family has helped us, that means you and me, with everything from doctor’s prescriptions, Texas Lottery tickets to delicious meals in the café,” the GiveForward solicitation says.
(Historic side note: Former Dallas Cowboy Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson bought his $28 million-winning lottery ticket at Nau’s in 2000. He took the cash option and collected $10.4 million after taxes.)
The family has run up legal bills on the case, as well as nursing home bills for Labay’s now-deceased grandparents. Labay told me the store lost $40,000 in the first three months of 2016.
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Hard not to feel for the Labays, right?
There’s another side to this, a side you’ll also feel sympathy for. That’s why this is such a sad mess.
The Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, like many neighborhood associations, is trying to protect the character of its part of town.
“OWANA has long opposed the demolition of this house,” Rosemary Merriam, then the chair of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, told the Historic Landmark Commission on Jan. 25. “We think it has considerable historic value to our neighborhood, and we support the (city) staff’s recommendation that it be given historic status.
“I sympathize with the Labay family,” she said. “I understand the expense. We also pay taxes in our neighborhood, which are extraordinary.”
Merriam claimed the needed repairs are mostly cosmetic (something Labay disputes), and, she said, “I’ve never seen any attempts at major upkeep” on the house. Labay told the commission the family can’t afford the repairs.
Alexander Shoghi, who is doing a substantial rehab work on an 1890 home across the street from the Labays’ vacant house, told the Historic Landmark Commission that allowing demolition of 611 West Lynn could “set a very dangerous precedent where a person can choose to not reinvest in one’s property, not maintain it to the point of it becoming uninhabitable and then eventually be able to sell it at a higher profit than would otherwise be available had they maintained it.”
Neighborhood association Chairman Scott Marks prefaced his remarks to the commission with this: “I have to say I love Nau’s pharmacy. I love everything that they stand for, and they’re a big part of the history of Austin. So I’m very supportive of them and believe that their intentions are very good.
“At the same time, I love Austin history, and this is a beautiful and very old house,” Marks said, calling for a compromise. One possibility might be subdividing the lot to preserve the home while allowing development on the other portion.
That’s what Steve Sadowsky, the city’s historic preservation officer, favors.
“Staff is extremely sympathetic to this family and understands what a deal it is to have a house like this that is not really habitable and not really sellable either,” he told the commission.
Maureen Metteauer, the neighborhood association’s zoning chair, told me Monday the vacant house is “a bit of a dividing line between the commercial part of Sixth Street and more of the residential interior of old West Austin.”
And, for now, it’s a big dividing line between an old West Austin neighborhood association and the retro drug store that’s an old West Austin neighborhood landmark.
See a video with this column at mystatesman.com.