City Hall Hustle: Don't Know Much About History, Or ...

Does that vacant lot trump your front porch screens?

Randi Shade
Randi Shade (Photo by John Anderson)

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Timeless advice, sure, but also timely, in view of the tenacity Randi Shade exhibited last week in a mammoth, two-hour discussion over controversial new rules governing the creation of historic districts in Austin's neighborhoods.

To neighborhood advocates who pushed for the changes, they're long overdue to preserve the changing character of their blocks. Decrying the current historic district zoning process as arduous, they point to the sum of Austin's historic districts – one, on Harthan Street, comprising 10 houses – as proof the process takes time. However, opponents are worried the changes, easing the process by which a historic district can be created, will turn their neighborhoods into shellacked-in-time facsimiles of Old Austin while stripping individual owners of their property rights.

The omnibus item before council included several components: It provides tax breaks to homeowners who choose to make expensive remodels to their home in keeping with the neighborhood's all-important historic character, while allowing the Historic Preservation Office to administratively approve minor projects, like small additions not viewable from the street. It strengthens the penalties against historic-property owners looking to level their properties via demolition by neglect. It requires approval for historic-home improvement, "including but not limited to the replacement of windows, doors, exterior siding materials, installation of shutters or exterior lighting, or the replacement of roof materials." It also lowers the Historic Landmark Commission's voting requirements for designating zoning cases as historic.

But what caused the most consternation were changes required for the designation of a historic district itself. Under the old rules, owners of 60% of the surrounding acreage had to agree to initiate the creation of a historic district. The changes lower that threshold to 51% – a move Steve Sadowsky, the city's historic preservation officer, says would bring the city in line with other peer cities like Houston. (Any application to create a district would eventually wend its way to City Council for final approval.) However, what had refuseniks – including members of the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, which formally endorsed the measures – particularly worked up about the taste police was a provision that would allow up to one-third of the 51% threshold (17%) to be provided by city land – including not only historic parks and structures but also vacant lots and new buildings. "If I wanted to live in a neighborhood where 31 percent of landmass could restrict my paint choices, or not allow me to build a front porch, I would've bought in a subdivision 20 years ago," said irate OWANAite Tracen Gardner. There was some similar sentiment on the dais. "What's disturbing me is a brand new police station, a fusion center, can be counted," said Sheryl Cole, summoning some unholy vortex of controversy before council that day. (For more on fusion centers, see "Lighting a Fuse.")

Similarly concerned, Shade offered what she initially pitched as a friendly amendment – that city-owned land could only apply "if it contains a building or structure which has been zoned historic, or was integral to the historical development of the district." Laura Morrison, championing the original language, wouldn't accept it. "The best course of action," Mayor Lee Leffingwell half-jokingly told Shade, was to "make an unfriendly amendment to the existing motion." She did, and the substitute motion failed 3-4. However, after further discussion, Shade returned with a new amendment, adopting the "fallback language" prepared with the help of the Heritage Society of Austin, drafted in case council had qualms about including all city land. The new language – nearly identical to that in Shade's first amendment – passed 5-2, with Morrison and Mike Martinez voting nay. "The reason why I feel so strongly about it is, I understand both these values," Shade said, trying to strike a balance between neighborhood needs and individual property rights. But she couldn't abide only requiring "a minority to start the conversation," and a potentially divisive, time-consuming conversation at that – hence her procedural jujitsu.

Morrison was nonplussed about the change for two reasons, she told the Hustle afterward. "We as the city can show our support for having the [historic district] conversation," she said, reiterating the 51% required only initiates a process the council must ultimately approve. "The second reason is it's just a whole lot simpler," she continued, meaning council could be in for a series of thumb-sucking conversations over the historic significance of practically any piece of city dirt.

But isn't that just a microcosm of the historic district debate in the first place?

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City Council, neighborhoods, Randi Shade, Laura Morrison, historic preservation

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