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Historic Preservation program works to preserve city’s heritage

Monday, September 29, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

Historic preservation in Austin began with the creation of the Historic Landmark Commission almost 25 years ago and continues as programs are added to meet new needs and new philosophies in preservation, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky told the City Council at a briefing on his department last week.


Many of the benefits of the city’s preservation program are educational, information that is gathered and catalogued in a growing database. Any time a historic case is initiated – and the Historic Landmark Commission typically initiates a case when a demolition or relocation permit is pulled on a potential landmark candidate –it’s the job of Sadowsky and planner Susan Villarreal to gather the historic background of the structure, noting both its architectural distinctions and historic associations.


And, as Sadowsky pointed out to the Council, it’s not always a house. The city also recognizes landscape features that have historical associations, such as the moonlight towers and the Treaty Oak. These are items associated with Austin history and important to maintain the historic character of Austin, Sadowsky said.


The office, at the discretion of Council, also has attempted to address some of the challenges of preservation, such as teardowns, by creating the concept of local historic districts. These historic districts are still in the early stages of development, but they are intended to maintain historic integrity beyond a single property line.


“This is the tool that the city supplied to neighborhoods to help protect neighborhoods,” Sadowsky said in his presentation to the Council. “We also have National Register Districts, which go to the Texas Historical Commission, and we administer the local aspects of that.”


The historic preservation program was launched in 1974. To date, Austin has 484 historic landmarks. The city is home to 14 National Register Districts that cover 2,000 properties. And although the concept is popular—there have been numerous workshops on the issue — only one neighborhood has managed to win local historic district designation, although Sadowsky said he was hopeful more would be approved by year’s end.


Sadowsky’s office reviews well over 700 permits each year. It uses the collective historic preservation research to institute activities such as historic walking tours of the city. The office also has coordinated with the Heritage Society’s tours to provide background and context for neighborhoods.


“This also comes down to heritage tourism,” Sadowsky said. “We have so many tourists coming to Austin that they may not even recognize they are in a historic district on Sixth Street, but they do recognize the buildings, and it helps bring them back. We also have a number of hotels that are capitalizing on their historic status to bring tourists into the city and have them stay here.”


Landmark designation in Austin entitles a structure to tax abatements, Sadowsky noted. Houses eligible for exemptions are reviewed every year, and the office provides as much assistance and information as possible to try to preserve the integrity of structures. The philosophy is to repair structures, rather than replace them.


Sadowsky’s office continues to work toward updating the city’s comprehensive historic survey, which was completed in 1984. The goal is to get that information gathered and on a website, so people who come into Austin are aware of the historic significance of various structures and neighborhoods before they buy a home.


The office also supports other missions, Sadowsky said. For instance, the Historic Preservation office is looking within the informal boundaries of the warehouse district to identify relevant historic buildings. When the Building and Standards Commission considers a case, they provide the information to Sadowsky’s office to research the structure before demolition is approved. The office also provides data to the Residential Design and Compatibility Commission to assist them in decisions on approving additions to buildings.


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