Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Revisionist History: For All the Usual Reasons, City Hall Descends Into the Dark H-Zone

Austin At Large
In between keening over the budget and kneeling before major employers, City Hall has found the time to work itself into a fine little freak-out over historic zoning. Granted, the subject is inherently controversial -- historic preservation, by definition, stands in the way of "progress," and many don't like that. But what's going on now is something new, because what's at issue isn't really Austin's past, but its future. The old houses of dead people have become fortifications in the ongoing battle to save Central Austin from the barbarians. Or, perhaps, to save it from itself.

For, like medieval castles of yore, the historic homes and neighborhoods of Central Austin are sometimes captured and become base camps for the other side, whichever side that may be. Does historic preservation create gentrification or retard it? Does it further the goals of neighborhood planning or hinder them? Does it hasten or delay the decay of the urban tax base? Is it Smart Growth or its opposite? In practice, the answer is, "All of the above."

Last year about this time, gentrification was the bloody shirt being waved in the face of historic preservationists. As a neighborhood leader in an Eastside historic district, I'm pretty compromised on this score, but my gut feeling is that historic zoning of East Austin homes is really a symptom of a larger "problem," which is white folks moving to the Eastside. That isn't really the same as "gentrification," given that so many white folks move to 78702 precisely because they're working-class people who have been priced out of 78703, '04, and '05. In my neighborhood's case, that is also precisely the "history" being preserved by a National Register district; white, working-class families built my neighborhood, Eastside though it may be. So I'm already confused and unsure which side I'm fighting on. I do know that there's no use not calling things by their proper names; if it is a community goal to ensure that African-American and Latino citizens of Austin still can, and want to, call East Austin home, then we should say so and move on.

Don't Adjust Your Set

This year, the historic battles have moved west, to places like Pemberton Heights and Washington Square and North University, all of which in recent weeks have seen property owners brought -- no, dragged -- before City Hall to explain why they should be allowed to tear down (now or in the future) their old houses. Officially, historic zoning can only be granted to properties that meet certain well-defined criteria as determined by a well-prescribed process involving city staff, the Historic Landmark Commission, the planning commissions (we have two, you know), and the City Council. In reality, these are political disputes and the pretensions of objectivity go by the wayside. The Pemberton case, which involves a home that really does seem to be historically valuable, led to high drama at both the Zoning and Platting Commission and the City Council, with the owner winning a big sympathy vote from both parties -- even though the HLC had voted 8-1 to H-zone the house.

The bloody shirt this year is "tax base"; the City Council, waking up with night sweats because Austin doesn't have any money, is understandably loath to hand out zoning that comes with its own big tax exemption, for which potentially thousands of expensive Central Austin properties may be eligible. But the Pemberton case also plumbed the recesses of that other dark hole in City Hall's consciousness: the development process. Personally, I have a hard time believing that any owner of an old Central Austin house who doesn't check out the HLC before planning a tear-down has really done his due diligence, but I can't really judge whether the sympathy for the Pemberton owner is deserved. The point is that it's really easy, right now, for City Hall leaders to believe that he got screwed by the process.

Especially this process, since H-zoning is pretty much the only instance where the city frequently initiates rezoning cases against the owner's wishes. This is also done, en masse, in neighborhood plans, but those come with plenty of forewarning and move with the speed and grace of a hippopotamus. Even after being streamlined twice, the program is still years behind its goal of planning and rezoning (as needed) all of Central Austin by 2002. And from my experience as a neighborhood-planning team chair, the current zoning of a property needs to be pretty damn bad for the team to want to wander into the briar patch of rezoning over the owner's objections. But this is the Historic Landmark Commission's raison d'être, and an H-zoning case can come out of nowhere with lightning speed. Like the site-plan review shop that just got downsized, the HLC and its allied city-staff office is seen as inherently adversarial to owners' interests. You and I may believe this is, in fact, the point of development regulation, but in the current City Hall Zeitgeist this will simply not do.

What History Teaches

But what to do instead? It's been suggested about a million times that, instead of attending to individual structures, the city historic preservation program should focus on protecting old neighborhoods as neighborhoods, with a local historic-district ordinance, recognizing that these 'hoods offer precisely the advantages -- scale, walkability, compactness -- that modern planning gospel wants to return to; they are, if you will, Old Urbanism. A federal National Register listing does some of this, but it comes with no incentives -- it simply makes certain bad things harder to do. A local historic district -- where every homeowner, not just the lucky ones in the biggest and grandest homes, can take advantage of a modest tax break and some civic investment -- can stand in the way of both gentrification and the plague of bad infill (of McMansions and super-duplexes) that makes no sense even aside from its aesthetic crimes. I believe a draft historic-district ordinance has been under development by city staff going on five years now, but will still not come forward in the near future. Certainly the tax break is a no-go until the next bright sunny economic day.

More importantly -- as I've said, on many issues, enough times to be tiresome -- the historic preservation issue would be a good job for a real citywide comprehensive plan, in which we decided how much, and what kinds, of our historic built environment we want to preserve, and how and why, and thus created a goal that neighborhood-planning efforts can strive to meet. No matter how valuable a certain property may be, as it's done now, H-zoning is spot-zoning, which is bad, and made worse by the way in which, like all planning decisions, it gets done in Austin, susceptible to maximum political pressure. Not only does it screw up sustainable land use, it also distorts the history it is intended to preserve. Future generations of Austinites will see, in their built environment, what is true of all history: It is written by the victors. end story

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Historic zoning, h-zoning, Historic Landmark Commission, HLC, development process, National Register, neighborhood planning, gentrification, tax base, Central Austin, Central East Austin

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