Naked City

Old Houses, New Battles

By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., July 23, 2004

As if the City Council didn't have enough on its plate, next week's meeting – the first after the long July break, and the first after the presentation of City Manager Toby Futrell's proposed fiscal 2005 budget – is likely to feature yet more fireworks over revisions to the city's historic preservation ordinance. The ink will barely be dry on the recommendations of the city Planning Commission, which is set to vote Tuesday on new tweaks to the recommended overhaul of the increasingly controversial program, which hasn't changed substantially since the ordinance was first adopted in 1974.

The commission was supposed to do its part last week, but punted the amendment package back to its Codes and Ordinances Subcommittee after a fractious meeting featuring the conflicting desires of multiple stakeholders. These included the long-established Heritage Society of Austin, the newly formed PreserveAustin group (which describes itself as a "think tank" that wants to complement, not replace, the Heritage Society), and members of the council-appointed Historic Preservation Task Force, most notably its chair, Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker, who created the historic program back when she was a member of the city planning staff.

Baker's ire was most acutely directed at her latter-day successors on the staff, like city Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, whose proposed code amendments deviated substantially, and in her view unacceptably, from the recommendations of her own task force. Although Baker has already presented the task force findings to the City Council, and the panel's report has been widely circulated, she noted that "it offends me personally" that she was not asked to present to the commission along with Sadowsky. For the most part, the Heritage Society took Baker's side, while PreserveAustin took Sadowsky's, leading the commission to send the package back to subcommittee for more formal input from Baker's team.

That meeting, held Monday, was described by at least some participants as cordial and constructive and helping to find common ground, but unlikely to ease the burden on the full commission or the City Council. A prime point of disagreement remains the size of the tax abatement that accompanies historic zoning and whether those abatements would be grandfathered for Austin's nearly 500 existing H-zoned properties. After some back-and-forth – and unsubtle lobbying from owners of expensive H-zoned property – the task force decided to recommend full grandfathering, but the staff's proposed reductions would apply to everyone. The staff recommendation would basically halve the current abatement levels and eliminate entirely the abatement on land value enjoyed by commercial properties – a big, big problem, Baker and others noted, for H-zoned downtown properties like those on Sixth Street, whose land value already exceeds that of the structure and is likely to increase in perpetuity.

It's unclear how much ice this argument will cut with the City Council, which convened Baker's task force amid oft-expressed worries about the potential impact of H-zoning on the city's straitened finances. As it stands, the historic preservation program costs the city relatively little money – less than $1 million – but the number of properties that could be H-zoned under the existing ordinance is staggering, which is why both the task force and staff have endorsed significantly stricter criteria for historic designation. Also on the table are proposals to create local historic districts, which currently exist in Austin only in theory; this is a particularly high priority for PreserveAustin, which sees districts as a way to actually protect old Austin's many historic neighborhoods without breaking the city bank. The staff proposal includes enhanced protections (and financial incentives) for districts in low-income areas – an anti-gentrification strategy that goes farther than those entertained by the task force.

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