Developing Stories

Austin Iconography

Much as the rallying cry "Keep Austin Weird" resonated with the city's current anxieties and zeitgeist, so the notion of Iconic Preservation – first proposed in September by Dave Sullivan, longtime chair of the Planning Commission – has struck a momentary public chord. With Austin and its boomtown economy squarely in the crosshairs of national chain retailers and restaurants – whose big formula operations threaten to edge out Austin's funkier homegrowns – there's a yearning in the air for a standard public process that could protect Austin icons with minimal stress and divisiveness.

Is Iconic Preservation a brilliant answer, or a nutty one?

Sullivan's proposal of an Iconic Preservation ordinance was triggered by "the Las Manitas problem." That struggle between a row of small, eclectic, multicultural downtown businesses (our beloved David) and a planned mega-Marriott (standing in for all global corporate Goliaths) has become emblematic of the larger struggle for Austin's soul. That battle resonates as well with enduring regrets over long-lost "icons" such as Liberty Lunch and the Armadillo World Headquarters.

Still in the brainstorming stage, Sullivan's notion is to create a city program offering special assistance or protection to formally designated "iconic businesses" – perhaps 12 the first year, with two to four added annually. People are listening, although no other city staff, council members, commissions, or civic groups have signed on publicly to date. On Nov. 14, the proposal will go to the Planning Commission for a public hearing.

The fundamental dilemma: Creating a bureaucratic process to define and manage the unique, the eclectic, and the weird promises to be the institutional equivalent of herding cats. The Oct. 18 response of the Downtown Commission when Sullivan presented his proposal revealed some of the notion's soft spots. After thanking Sullivan warmly for his efforts to forge a positive solution, the commissioners gently raised a number of concerns. Has any other city ever tried this? (Sullivan has searched but found no proven models.) What would stop landlords from evicting or simply not lease-renewing an iconic tenant? (Possibly freezing their right to request an upgrade in zoning – such as the upgrade from CBD, or central business district, to CBD-CURE, or central business district-central urban redevelopment, necessary to build taller than eight stories.) How could such a subjective designation be made, and would it be legally binding? (Sullivan proposes a point system based on six "iconic" characteristics: unique, independent, eclectic, popular, famous, and sustainable, e.g. in business at least 5-10 years. [But there could be other models; see box, above.]) Other questions addressed density bonuses, encouraging downtown density, future changes in a business after its iconic designation, and the relative rights of business owners vs. property owners.

Unintended consequences also loomed. For example, landlords might respond by favoring chain outlets over scrappy locals as tenants, fearing that a small homegrown business would one day become an iconic giant-killer. (Downtown Commissioner Tim Finley, the aggrieved landlord of Las Manitas and Escuelita del Alma, listened politely; whenever the conversation veered toward his property, he asked to be recused – but was waved off by chair Jeb Boyt, who insisted the commissioners were speaking only "in general terms.")

Sullivan's model, in principle and in draft language, is the city's Historic Preservation ordinance. Yet the parallel isn't apples and apples. The conceptual through-line is the notion that the "public good" of preservation can trump, in specified instances, the absolute property rights of a building owner. It's accepted practice for the owner of a historic building to forfeit specified property rights (to alter or demolish the architectural exterior) and to receive, in exchange, city incentives (property tax exemptions). So why not provide similar incentives for the preservation of a designated iconic business?

But threatened iconic businesses (like Las Manitas and Escuelita) by definition face crises because they're tenants in buildings they don't own. In most cases, remaining in the beloved old building is essential to retaining the place's special character. (Consider the peripatetic Cedar Door.) Offering a funky, eclectic business a sterile, market-rate lease space inside its replacement, the new megahotel skyscraper (to be completed 18 months after the old building is scraped), doesn't solve the problem. It may even be (as Sullivan himself has mused) that rallying around a business like Las Manitas – pulling together to reject an interloper and reassert Austin values – has innate value as a civic tonic. Also working against the ordinance: How likely are council members to vote themselves the sticky job of strong-arming property owners and developers into keeping all unwanted "iconic" tenants? For too many pragmatic reasons, enacting an Iconic Preservation ordinance seems, in the end, untenable.

Eventually, the discussion at the Downtown Commission evolved toward a broader city program – one that would provide supportive assistance not just to the iconic few but to all independent, locally owned businesses. The small and the offbeat will always be at an economic disadvantage in competing with corporate-bankrolled, superefficient franchise operations. As Boyt put it, "Why protect iconic businesses, but let everything else go chain?" Other commissioners nodded along with his suggestion that, if the city is going to labor over administering a new program, it should be one that fosters "a general climate that truly supports small businesses." (The proposed big-box ordinance now on its way to City Council [see "Developing Stories," Oct. 27] could be one piece of that puzzle; under that ordinance, the city could nix a new superstore in a neighborhood setting on the grounds that it threatens established small businesses.)

Exactly how Iconic Preservation might evolve toward small-business preservation remains to be seen. Within Sullivan's proposal lies a valuable list of ideas for "Possible Rewards to Property Owner or Business Owner" (see his "Iconic Preservation Concepts"), incentives that potentially could be provided to any indie biz. Sullivan said the Planning Commission discussion on Nov. 14 could include a more expansive "small local independent business assistance plan," which even could include help for tenant business owners who want to buy their buildings. (The city can call it "BLISS-MAP": Business – Local, Independent, Small, Sustainable – Master Assistance Plan.) Best practices from other cities addressing the same issue may also be explored.

Whether it ever gets written as an ordinance, Iconic Preservation has sparked a timely deepening of our public dialogue. If nothing else, perhaps it can help push Austin toward crafting pragmatic solutions that put our money where our migas are.

Clarification: The board of the Austin Parks Foundation has not yet taken a vote, or adopted an official position, on the issue of variances that would permit development within the 200-foot setbacks from Town Lake required by the city's Waterfront Overlay Ordinance.

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iconic preservation, Dave Sullivan, Las Manitas, Tim Finley, Jeb Boyt

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