Rewriting Austin History

City tackles ambitious preservation plan, contentious ordinance

The city's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department has launched the overhaul of the Austin's 20-year-old historic preservation plan – not to be confused with the City Council's impending vote on a new historic preservation ordinance. The latter, which the council is set to consider this week after more than a year of public wrangling, governs the machinations of the Historic Landmark Commission. If approved, the proposed rewrite will tighten the criteria for historic designation, give a nod to local historic districts, and set new limits on tax incentives that accompany historic zoning.

The plan, on the other hand, is a catalog of Austin's historic buildings, landmarks, and monuments that will both define what is considered historic in the city and prioritize what should be preserved. In other cities, historic preservation plans range from a simple catalog of historic buildings to a comprehensive overhaul of city code to preserve a city's "sense of place." If Austin is considered the Live Music Capital of the World, for instance, the plan could define whether city fathers should go out of their way to preserve today's and tomorrow's equivalents of the (now-vanished) Liberty Lunch or Armadillo World Headquarters.

Historic preservation efforts in Austin are often spawned by a civic group's efforts to thwart demolition of a house the neighborhood considers historic. On occasion, a neighborhood such as Hyde Park makes a more comprehensive effort to catalog and preserve its assets. But in its more recent planning efforts, the city has attempted to pull that historic preservation thread through the overall plan, city Urban Design Officer Jana McCann told an interested group on Tuesday night, citing examples like the Eastside Saltillo District, the Second Street/City Hall Plaza complex, and the South Congress Improvement Plan.

The new overall historic-preservation plan will go one step further, and it will be a massive three-year undertaking. One component will be the work of UT School of Architecture students to catalog the city's structures. The last historic preservation survey, completed in 1984, was no more than a windshield survey of exterior architectural features, and it went no farther than the boundaries of the city in 1935. Even so, that limited survey produced 13 volumes of information. This time, the information collected will be digitized so that it can be widely circulated and incorporated into future civic and neighborhood planning efforts.

On a separate front, a draft preservation plan will be completed this fall, with input from both a citizen advisory group and a technical advisory group. The city has set up an e-mail for those who want to offer comments at historicpreservationplan@ci.austin.tx.us.

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