Tax Abatements Are Not Just for West Austin Mansions

RECEIVED Tue., Jan. 5, 2010

Dear Editor,
    The recent controversy over property tax abatement for West Austin mansions overlooks some critical factors regarding the city historic zoning program.
    First, most designated properties are not in West Austin, and most are not mansions. There are a variety of significant commercial and residential properties generally scattered over older parts of Austin. There are some grand buildings, but more are modest and tell of life in Austin a century or more ago: important cottages, bungalows, and Victorian storefronts.
    My own house in Hyde Park is an intact Victorian cottage, a typical prosperous middle class cottage built in 1896 that has grown in importance with the demolition or mutilation of its contemporaries. In the 25 years I’ve lived here and had historic zoning, it has been open for six homes tours and hosted probably 50 large and small nonprofit events. Total strangers walking the neighborhood regularly compliment us on the house and garden, and it was photographed for a Money magazine article on good things about Austin.
    Unquestionably, I take better care of the property because of its city landmark status. In a recent remodeling, at the request of city staff, I gave up skylights that would be visible from the side street. The landmark staff visits the house annually to ensure it is being maintained before abatement is granted. Their requirements are usually reasonable but have included repairing an abandoned, dead-end sidewalk on city property.
    Maintaining a landmark is typically expensive and impractical. But I firmly believe that there is a true public benefit in the recognition and preservation of local landmarks, and the abatement program is one very important tool. Compare Austin to Dallas or Houston.
Peter Flagg Maxson
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