Naked City

Historical Revision

The Buratti-Moreno building
The Buratti-Moreno building (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Advocates for historic preservation have for years tried to update the blue-rinse-and-pearls image of their chosen passion. But there are times when the sedate old days, when guilds of older ladies and gentlemen discussed local history over coffee, seem mighty attractive. These days, preserving local history and culture isn't much different from preserving the environment -- it involves grassroots activism, big money, and striking political sparks.

And on the front lines you'll find the nine members of the Austin Historic Landmark Commission, which has two primary roles in the city's byzantine development process. The HLC gets to evaluate and recommend requests for historic zoning or landmark status (for most property owners, a good thing, since it means lower taxes). But the commission can also hold up building or demolition permits involving structures with determined or potential historic value (for the affected property owners, a very, very bad thing).

In the last couple of years, the HLC has bounced from one high-profile case to another, each with its own quirks and arcana that leave all sides frustrated and disappointed. So the commission has drafted and recommended -- first to the Planning Commission's codes-and-ordinances subcommittee, then to the full PC, then to the City Council -- new ordinance language that, it hopes, will streamline the historic-review process and thus make it more effective.

"I think there's room for improvement in the process," says architect and HLC member Laurie Limbacher, who chaired the HLC subcommittee that drafted the new ordinance. "I don't think we can make [historic review] a painless process for someone who's determined not to go through it, but we want to make it a more workable process."

For example, the Commission last year gave its blessing to a proposed remodeling of the Buratti-Moreno building, a vintage grocery on East Sixth Street, but by the time the project got to City Council, the plans had changed, and the original building would basically be gutted. "What we've found," says Limbacher, "is that we're dealing with a lot of extremely difficult cases, and once they leave our commission, there comes an interest to have us become involved again" because of such changes, "and there isn't a real clear process for looping back."

The proposed ordinance could allow the HLC to give conditional approval to such projects, and "more generally," says Limbacher, "there's been an interest in shifting us away from being involved in permitting issues at the end of a project and become more of a planning group that's involved in the beginning." Under the new rules, when the HLC determines that a building with established or potential historic value is threatened by a permit, it would trigger the actual process for landmark determination, which involves a public hearing.

This doesn't happen now, which is how Vignette was able to get demo permits for three potentially historic houses at its new downtown digs on the same day the request went to the HLC. Having one-and-the-same process for all historic reviews, whether tied to zoning or permitting, could allow the HLC "to sidestep pressure from other arms of the city" (as was felt with Vignette), city historic preservation officer Barbara Stocklin told the commission.

The HLC's job isn't made easier by the city code's definition of what constitutes "historic." Right now, there are 13 separate criteria under which a property (or a district) may be designated historic, many of which are quite broad and intentionally so. For example, a building can be historic if it "is part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, state, or country," or if it "is of value to a neighborhood, community area, or the City because of its location."

This means that the HLC and historic preservation advocates basically have to know history when they see it and be prepared to fight for it, because pointing to the code and saying here-it-is-in-black-and-white is of little utility. "We found that in dealing with some particularly contentious cases," says Limbacher, "people find the current ordinance confusing, so we're proposing that the current categories be changed to make them easier to understand and less open to broad interpretation."

It does not seem that this would be too hard a sell to the current council. "Right now, the ordinance is so broad you can argue about it all the day long," says Mayor Pro Tem Goodman, who's traditionally taken the lead on historic-preservation issues. "I think I agree [the HLC] should have a little more clout, but they should have some more detailed, updated and specific criteria."

And that would be the effect of the new process for historic review, as well as of the next ordinance-writing project coming down the pike from the HLC: putting flesh on the bones, and teeth in the jaws, of the current codes' provisions, not just for historic-zoned properties, but for actual local historic districts (which Austin doesn't really have on the ground), wherein you might have specific design guidelines and some sort of tax incentives for rehabilitation. (It appears the most likely venue for introducing such districts would be through neighborhood plans.)

Between these efforts, Goodman hopes the HLC gives the council "something proactive to do" and not just a more binding version of what is already seen by many property owners as a cumbersome and unpredictable process. "Hopefully, we can end up with a [historic review] process that isn't so onerous that people will do everything possible to avoid going through it."

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