Former City Historic Preservation Officer Comments

RECEIVED Mon., April 19, 2004

Dear Editor,
   As the former city of Austin historic preservation officer, I would like to add my perspective to the City Council-appointed Historic Preservation Task Force recommendations discussed in Mike Clark-Madison's April 2 article ["New Rules for Old Buildings: The Historic Task Force," News]. When I left Austin in 2002, it was certain that the city historic preservation program was heading for a crisis. Established in 1974, the program had hardly been updated since. The original ordinance did not readily accommodate local historic district overlay zoning, instead relying heavily on a "courtesy" but unbinding review of building permits for areas listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Without local historic districts as an option and a more binding design review process, the city has not been able to protect valued historic neighborhoods (even those in the National Register) in any meaningful way.
   Austin is the only major city in the country that I am aware of that does not have local historic district overlay zoning. Phoenix – where I am now the city historic preservation officer – has 36 local historic districts. And by the way, most cities do not require a petition of 50% or more of the residents of an area to initiate a historic district zoning process. These cities instead initiate proceedings for qualified neighborhoods based on grassroots support and rely on their normal zoning requirements to "fine tune" the boundaries. A 50% petition requirement would not be in step with what other cities have learned elsewhere in the U.S. with much more successful programs. I would also encourage the city to establish a streamlined mechanism to confer local historic designation on existing National Register Historic Districts in Austin, and to phase out the outdated courtesy review process currently in place for National Register Historic Districts.
   Yes, Austin has very generous tax abatements for historic properties. It also has the highest property taxes in Texas. And, don't forget that these tax incentives have been the key to retaining valued low-scale historic buildings in the central city. Keep in mind that the owners of historic buildings in the Bremond Block, Congress Avenue, and Sixth Street are sitting on prime skyscraper-zoned real estate. Without strong financial incentives, these property owners might not find their historic overlay zoning so satisfying and may want the designation (and the buildings) removed. These downtown historic areas are also a major economic engine downtown – creating unique entertainment venues and attracting small locally owned businesses and retail establishments. If $600,000 of annual tax incentives protect Austin's neat, eclectic historic identity downtown, then perhaps it is money well spent.
   I also don't think a 75-year age requirement for individual or historic district designation or financial incentives makes any sense. This is really out of date with historic preservation thinking elsewhere in the country. So, the city leaders really think that there are no historic properties worth saving or assisting in Austin that date after 1929? While most cities in the country have long recognized World War II properties, modern architecture, and early ranch architecture as significant, Austin is turning back the clock even further to satisfy Betty Baker, the 71-year-old task force chair, and her outdated notions of what is worth saving and protecting in Austin.
   In my tenure as city historic preservation officer, I never thought that the city leadership fully appreciated what historic preservation had done (and was doing) for Austin's economy. The rest of the country loves Austin's funky character and charm – including its historic downtown and charming historic neighborhoods. Other cities are expanding their historic programs to protect their identities. Meanwhile, Austin is tightening the screws on its historic preservation program and its leaders. Why? Simply because the program needs updating and the City Landmark Commission needs better tools at its disposal. Interestingly enough, Betty Baker has been a major reason why previously proposed revisions to the city's historic preservation ordinance have not gone through (such as a local historic district ordinance). What gives? I would venture to say that it is not a program "in a point of crisis" – it's a city in a crisis. Austin needs to look outside of Austin if it is going to stay special.
Barbara Stocklin
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