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Historic preservation task force outlines work

Monday, October 20, 2003 by

Seven-member panel has five months to come up with recommendations

The newly appointed Historic Preservation Task Force set out an ambitious agenda at its first meeting last week, outlining issues around the city’s historic landmark designation program.

The panel, mostly current or former commissioners, has the awkward job of reviewing the work of the existing Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) and the rules under which they operate. Council members have complained that the HLC has lowered the bar to prevent demolition of buildings that do not merit preservation, catering to neighborhood activists over an owner’s right to redevelop property.

Task force members, who are working on a six-month time line, include Zoning and Platting Chair Betty Baker and ZAP Commissioners Keith Jackson, Joseph Martinez and John Donisi, former Historic Landmark Commissioners Jim Christianson and Tere O’Connell and former city attorney Jerry Harris. Baker was chosen to chair the task force.

According to the ordinance passed by City Council, the purpose of the task force’s is to provide a general review of the city regulations regarding historic designation, as well as the criteria used by the HLC to determine historic designation. The task force also is charged with reviewing the city’s tax exemption program for historic buildings and recommending how to implement historic districts.

The task force also will review the HLC’s membership practices, how it sets its agenda and any other issues identified by the task force. Recommendations are to be reported to City Council by March 25.

One of the prevailing sentiments at last week’s meeting was to make sure the process—whatever it becomes—is easy for property owners to understand. Task force members spoke a number of times to the fact that property owners had been surprised to learn their properties might be up for historic designation only after requesting demolition permits.

Baker, who chairs the task force, said the review by Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky is “a tremendously big hammer.” A developer can go through all the steps — buy a property; check the deed; check with city departments – and only learn there’s a problem after a permit application lands on Sadowsky’s desk, Baker said. At that point, the Historic Landmark Commission can choose to initiate a hearing for possible historic designation.

Baker, a one-time Planning Department employee, is both a preservationist and a realist. She said the historic preservation ordinance was put in place initially because the city was losing properties on East Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. The thought was to save downtown buildings, plus possibly some areas of Clarksville and Hyde Park. No one imagined the commission’s role would spread so wide, Baker said.

As it stands now, Sadowsky must complete the research to take buildings through the historic designation process and police any additions or changes to buildings that are deemed historic or are located in historic districts. With the Old West Austin Neighborhood’ s recent designation, that gives Sadowsky almost 3,500 structures to review, Christianson said. The addition of that one neighborhood has doubled Sadowsky’s job. Budget cuts and illness have reduced city staff in the historic preservation area to just one person.

The panel will have a number of tasks, including the review of recommendations to the Historic Landmark ordinance proposed by the HLC’s Operations Committee. The recommendations would consolidate from 13 to 6 criteria. The task force also wants to review the concept of historic districts rather than historic designation for individual buildings. Jackson said that’s more in line with the ordinance of his former home of Dallas.

The task force will meet again on Wednesday, Oct. 29. At that time, the task force will begin the review of proposed revisions to the ordinance made by the HLC Operations’ subcommittee, as well as historic preservation ordinances of comparable cities.

McCracken touts technology for city

Spelman has a different point of view

Council Member Brewster McCracken is back in Austin after spending three days in Baltimore. The Council’s newest member had a series of meetings to inspect Baltimore’s Citistat system, which has helped save that city millions of dollars and attracted the attention of cities across the US as well as other countries.

“They’ve saved $44 million in the first two years of the system,” said McCracken. The Citistat system, which adopted data tracking technology used by the New York City Police Department, is designed to provide more information to department heads to improve the delivery of city services. “You need to have a good way to track what’s going on in your city,” said McCracken. “The second innovation they had was using that technology to lower costs and provide better customer service.”

Baltimore uses information technology for a variety of tasks ranging form tracking sick days taken in each city department to response time to citizen requests for services. Baltimore city officials describe it as being based on four tenets: accurate and timely intelligence, effective tactics and strategies, rapid deployment of resources and relentless follow-up and assessment.

McCracken touted the system as one way to improve efficiency in city government during his campaign for office earlier this year. After a detailed review of the system in operation, he’s optimistic that some aspects can be implemented here early next year as a major technology upgrade comes online.

Pete Collins, the city’s Acting Chief Information Officer, accompanied McCracken on the trip. “We sat in on three of the meetings where the Citistat team goes through all the statistics from a department,” said McCracken. “They were doing everything from tracking trends from how alleys are getting cleaned up to complaints about people’s trash not being picked up. They’re able to use computer generated maps of the entire city to show the problem areas.”

Elements of the Citistat system could be applied through Austin’s 311 non-emergency telephone system, or through the city’s web site. “This is not just a great tool to make the government work better, but I really do believe we’re going to see significant improvements in all areas,” said McCracken. “We really do have the opportunity to become the best-run city government in America.”

Former Council Member Bill Spelman is skeptical. The LBJ School professor says several city departments have been using Citistat-like statistics for years. For example, he says, “ I know that Water and Wastewater has collecting and reporting quality control data since at least the early 1990s.” He said a number of other departments also use statistical tracking methods in similar fashion.

“For what it’s worth, the genesis of Citistat, NYPD’s CrimeStat, is a good idea that has, I think, ended up doing more harm than good . . . The guts of the problem is that it was a political approach to an operational problem. The commanders (who had to use CrimeStat) didn’t understand what could be done to reduce the crime problems they found out about. Instead of relying on operational staff to solve the problems, they used the most efficient means of crime prevention known to man: the other end of the pencil. By systematically perverting the data, they’ve made CrimeStat less and less valuable for its intended purpose.”

BOA grants variance for UT area condo project

The developers of a proposed condominium project in the West University area have received a variance from the Board of Adjustment on compatibility setback requirements. Consultant Jim Bennett stepped in to help James Martindale and 26th St. Enterprises with the case when the group’s attorney was unable to attend last week’s board meeting because of health problems.

Plans call for approximately 60 units with two bedrooms each to be built at 711 and 713 W. 26th. The site is currently zoned MF-4, but the applicant will be seeking a zoning change to MF-6 in the near future to allow the condo-style development. Much of the surrounding area is already developed with high-density student housing. However, there is one tract zoned MF-4-H (historic) that is being used as a single-family house. That property’s designation would trigger height limitations on the condo project because of compatibility setbacks. Bennett told the board that the MF-4-H property would not have a view of the condos, and the University Area Partners supported the variance.

“I don’t have a problem with this,” said Board Chair Herman Thun. “This part of the community is developing densely.” But Thun and Board Member Frank Fuentes indicated that the findings of fact submitted in writing in advance by the applicant were not sufficient. Bennett submitted several other findings during his oral presentation to the board and drafted a written version during the meeting. Those findings helped persuade the board to support the variance by a vote of 5-0.

The BOA is meeting again tonight. They will hear an administrative appeal from a decision made by the director of the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department on property at 3207 Hampton Road. The case involves the super-duplex type structure giving neighbors nightmares. The property owners are requesting a ruling concerning an application for a permit to build two structures—a six-bedroom house and a two-bedroom garage apartment. The case is one of only two on tonight’s agenda, with the second being a request for reconsideration on whether a property at 2307 Rio Grande is being used for religious assembly. The meeting begins at 5:30pm in Room 325 of One Texas Center.(See In Fact Daily, August 20, 2003.)

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

UTC meets tonight . . . The Urban Transportation Commission will meet at 6pm in the 8th Floor Conference Room of One Texas Center. Topics on their agenda include discussion of the impact of recent legislation on the Austin Area Metropolitan Transportation Plan and CAMPO plan. They will also talk about proposed amendments to the Land Development Code relating to off-street parking requirements, loading and bicycle requirements . . . Party people . . . Council Member Daryl Slusher and his wife, Adela Mancias, celebrated their 50th birthdays together this weekend at a party given for the two of them by Mark Yznaga and former State Rep. Ann Kitchen. It’s not hard for Slusher and Mancias to remember each other’s birthdays since they were born just five days apart . . . Lauri Apple back in Austin . . . Former Austin Chronicle reporter Lauri Apple has returned from Amarillo and is looking for work. She came back to Austin this weekend and is also working on a book . . . RECA restores park . . . About sixty members of the Real Estate Council of Austin raked and planted and generally cleaned trails and flower beds at Mayfield Park on Saturday. The Great Outdoors and Native Texas Nursery donated about 45 plants to the effort, which also included the sowing of about 25 pounds of wildflower seeds in the park. “In light of the City of Austin’s current budget crunch, we decided to select the city as our charity of choice for our traditional October community service project,” said Janice Cartwright, Executive Director of RECA. She said the Parks and Recreation Department had put the project on hold because of lack of funds.

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