New Rules for Old Buildings: The Historic Task Force

As the task force on historic preservation concludes its work, the outcome remains uncertain

The ad hoc city Historic Preservation Task Force chaired by Betty Baker was set to present its final written report to the City Council this week, as the Chronicle went to press; Baker discussed its findings with the Historic Landmark Commission Monday night. The panel, created and appointed at the end of September, was given six months to wade into, sort through, and hopefully resolve issues that had – at least in the view of members of the City Council – brought Austin's historic preservation program to the point of crisis.

Six months might seem like a long time for a review, but consider that just one item on the task force's to-do list – crafting a local historic district program – has been simmering on City Hall's back burner for nearly five years. Many preservationists and neighborhood leaders have been pushing throughout that time for a way to create local districts that would protect intact homes in older neighborhoods – at least those that "contribute" to the district – from wanton demolition, set some guidelines on acceptable infill development, and channel funds or incentives into rehabilitating structures that need it. The city already has eight districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but that designation only protects them from threats (such as highway expansion) involving federal funds, and the process of being listed is rather arduous.

In the absence of this tool to preserve their perceived integrity, neighborhoods have over the past two years turned to the tools at hand – specifically, pursuing historic zoning for individual properties – to hold the infill beast at bay. Hence the run of recent high-profile cases – the DeWitt C. Greer House in Pemberton Heights, the Calcasieu cottages in the Hancock neighborhood, the Bellmont cottages on Washington Square, and most recently three houses on West Lynn in Old West Austin, among others – in which neighbors have rather openly sought historic designation as a land-use planning tool, against the wishes of owners seeking to demolish the structures and build new (and larger) projects in their place.

The City Council, Baker's Zoning and Platting Commission, and to a lesser extent the Planning Commission – as well as Steve Sadowsky, the city's historic preservation officer – have all offered various degrees of resistance to this trend, not only out of sympathy with owners and developers, but also out of fear for the state of the city budget. Under its current rules, Austin offers owners of H-zoned properties the most generous tax abatements in the nation: 100% of the value of the structure and 50% of the land value for residential properties, 50% and 25% for commercial. Right now, with only 400 or so properties zoned historic in all of Austin, the impact is fairly manageable. But with tens of thousands of eligible structures in central Austin, it's unsurprising that City Hall would panic.

The city's current ordinance, first adopted in 1974 and tinkered with several times since, is quite broad, allowing for historic designation (and protection and tax abatement) for properties that meet any one of 13 different criteria. Back in the day, Baker and others suggest, the HLC – which has the power to initiate an H-zoning case against the owner's wishes, even after the owner has gotten pretty far down the road to redevelopment – was much more likely to say no than yes; only buildings of obvious significance, ones that met the majority of those 13 criteria, were typically given the HLC's blessing. The current HLC, however, has been far more willing to side with neighbors and initiate H-zoning cases, sometimes even against Sadowsky's recommendation.

By the time the task force was appointed last fall, the sense at City Hall that the HLC was out of control led the council to leave the commission out of the loop. (One HLC member, Laurie Limbacher, serves as an ex officio, nonvoting member of the task force.) Instead, two former HLC members (Jim Christianson and Tere O'Connell), three other members of the ZAP (Joseph Martinez, Keith Jackson, and John Donisi), and former city attorney Jerry Harris were appointed alongside Baker (who created the current system as a city staffer) and were given a pretty clear political mandate: Tighten up the criteria for historic designation, reduce the size and scope of tax abatements, streamline (and restrain) the HLC's role in the H-zoning process, and at least move local historic districts to the front burner, if not make them ready-to-serve.

For the most part, despite the anti-HLC sentiments that attended the task force's creation, the group has stuck pretty close to the script of a new draft historic ordinance written by a subcommittee of the HLC itself. The task force voted to recommend raising the eligibility age for historic zoning from 50 to 75 years, as well as to endorse a more stringent set of overlapping criteria for eligibility. As for the tax issue, the current recommendation is to cap future residential abatements at $2,000 a year, but to keep commercial abatements as they are; also, after owners of expensive historic homes expressed their reservations to the task force, the panel changed its prior stance and has now recommended that all current abatements be grandfathered. Other proposals would change the size and membership criteria for the HLC itself, which has 11 members (whereas most city boards only have nine), five of which are ownership seats for local organizations like the Heritage Society and the Travis Co. Bar Association. (Despite the city's current interest in change, the Texas Historical Commission uses Austin's system, with only minor differences, as the model it recommends to other Texas communities.)

And what of local historic districts? The task force, after some back-and-forth – influenced in part by City Hall's fiscal concerns – has gone on record supporting financial incentives, specifically a freeze on appraised values for at least five years, only for owners who reinvest in those districts by rehabilitating their properties, even if those structures are not themselves historic (that is, "contributing" to the district). The panel also endorsed a one-time tax break for property owners to encourage the creation of new districts – which would most likely require the participation of at least 50% of the property owners. That may be hard to come by in a district where owners have redevelopment on their minds.

The task force split, with Baker in opposition, on proposals made by its members and neighborhood leaders (including this reporter, representing Central East Austin neighbors) to build anti-gentrification provisions into this system for historic districts in lower-income areas – for example, making eligibility for the tax incentives dependent on keeping housing affordable by city standards. Members of the task force who support such measures have indicated they'll prepare a minority report discussing the issue. Nor did the task force fully address the larger questions of how local historic districts would actually be created and defined, and by whom, and according to what criteria.

  • More of the Story

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  • Saving Woody and the Woodburn

    In the late Seventies, Betty Baker lent a hand to help rescue a cat named Woody and ultimately the old house on whose roof the cat was stranded

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

historic preservation, Historic Preservation Task Force, Betty Baker, Historic Landmark Commission, HLC, historic zoning, local historic districts, tax abatements

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