Preservation Politics

Changes in personnel and direction at the Historic Landmark Commission

What was old is new again when it comes to the Historic Landmark Commission. Last week, City Council replaced more than half of the sitting members on the commission with new appointees, a measure that may have a sweeping impact when it comes to historic preservation in the face of property rights.

City Council has dealt with the historic preservation ordinance more than once in the past couple of years. First was the complaint, during one of the city's belt-tightening phases, that Austin offered the most liberal historic tax abatement programs in the country. Under a task force led by Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker, standards were tightened and abatements cut in an attempt to provide more direction to the HLC. Commissioner Laurie Limbacher, who served as an ex-officio representative of the HLC on the task force, saw the task force's work as productive. The task force approved many of the recommendations of an HLC subcommittee, Limbacher said, such as requiring a super-majority vote to create historic designation in owner-opposed cases.

A second round with the task force addressed what Downtown Austin Alliance Executive Director Charlie Betts dubbed "the elephant in the room." That elephant, which the task force discussed openly, was the property owners' perception that frustrated neighborhood associations try to use the historic preservation ordinance as a cudgel to stop high-density construction, and that the commission was too willing to declare structures historic, even over the recommendation of Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky.

Limbacher, a local preservation architect, says she, for one, always did her best to follow the criteria set out by the historic preservation ordinance, both old and new. She called the friction over the commission, and especially between the commission and task force, overblown.

Now, with no discussion from council, comes the appointment of four new commissioners, including former city staff members Joe Arriaga and Laura Knott. Knott, however, has moved out of state, leaving that slot open. Developer Rodger Arend and architect Timothy Cuppett also were named to the board. Limbacher says three of the commissioners – she, Chair Lisa Laky, and Daniel Leary – were under the impression that new applications were not necessary and have now applied for new terms on the commission. With the reappointment of three veteran commissioners – Patti Hansen, Julia Bunton, and Jean Mather – three of the nine seats on the commission remain open.

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Historic Landmark Commission, Austin City Council, Zoning and Platting Commission, Betty Baker, Laurie Limbacher, Downtown Austin Alliance, Charlie Betts, Steve Sadowsky, Joe Arriaga, Laura Knott, Rodger Arend, Timothy Cuppett, Lisa Laky, Daniel Leary, Patti Hansen, Julia Bunton, Jean Mather

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