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Council changes standards for creation of historic districts

Monday, August 10, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Council lowered the bar to initiate the local historic district process last week, intending to open the pipeline to the work of almost a dozen neighborhoods that have failed to meet the threshold to begin the process of district creation in the four years since the original ordinance was passed.

John Donisi, past president of the Heritage Society of Austin, was the primary speaker for those who supported changes to the ordinance. He noted that the revisions to the preservation ordinance, despite good intentions, had yielded only one district, which consists of little more than a block face on Harthan Street.

Harthan is located north of Sixth Street and west of Lamar Boulevard. The first, and last, local historic district in Austin was approved two years ago.

“So, four and a half years after adoption, it has not achieved its objective,” Donisi told Council. “The working group that we have has come up with some provisions and changes.”

Local historic districts have a purpose, Donisi said. Not only do the districts drive consistent design standards, they also preserve the area’s historic fabric and qualify the city for more of the pot of federal funding for historic preservation.

Representatives from the East Cesar Chavez and Travis Heights neighborhoods spoke about the obstacles to historic preservation. Cory Walton, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said the ANC had recognized the value of historic preservation and voted in favor of the changes on a unanimous vote.

The proposed changes, however, did not sit well with all the neighbors. A total of 79 people registered on the historic district hearing, and not all of them were in favor of the changes. The audience at last week’s hearing had a strong contingent of agitated homeowners opposed to some of the changes, especially on two points: lowering the threshold from 60 to 51 percent to initiate the zoning case; and how the use of city-owned land would be applied to that 51 percent total.

Actually, it was the combination of the two that got some speakers worked up the most. Once city land can become a fifth of the total needed to tip the scale on initiating a zoning case, it almost drowns out opponents, speakers told Council.

Homeowner Sharon Miller supported historic preservation, but she was strongly opposed to lowering the bar on starting the process. The 51 percent should apply to the homeowners, and not the land, and should exclude city property, she said.

“We’re merely asking you guys not to abandon us in favor of a special interest group,” Miller said. “At a minimum, make it a democratic process, instead of leading us to a process that ends up being a minority vote.”

Council members Laura Morrison and Randi Shade squared off on this topic. Morrison insisted the inclusion of city land should not be a problem. It was simply tipping the scale in favor of starting the process, not deeming something historic.

“We’ve talked quite a bit about city-owned property, and clearly in the areas that are seeking local historic districts, about 99 percent of the time, the city-owned property that is going to be in the district is going to be the property that is integral to the fabric of the neighborhood,” Morrison said. “These spaces were built with the original neighborhoods, and even in the case where they’re not, property owners would agree they are an important part of the neighborhood.”

Morrison made the original motion, to support the proposal of the Historic Landmark Commission and the Planning Commission. The Zoning and Platting Commission proposed an alternative supported, in general, by Shade.

In her comments, Shade joked she recognized a lot of the people who came to the microphone as being not only her neighbors, but neighbors who lived on her own block. Without addressing Morrison’s comments directly, Shade said that the people of a neighborhood, and their support, were a key part of what made a neighborhood significant when it came to local historic districts.

Shade proposed an amendment – reviewed, but not supported, by the Heritage Society of Austin – that would only include city land in a petition for initiation. Donisi, when asked directly about Shade’s proposal, said it was one considered, but not supported, by the Heritage Society of Austin.

New Council Member Chris Riley ended up being the tipping point on the issue, noting he did not support the language offered up by Shade but he could support a proposed amendment offered, if not supported, by the Heritage Society. Riley was concerned that some of the language in Shade’s amendment was ambiguous.

Council Member Sheryl Cole supported Shade’s idea that only city-owned land deemed historic should be included in the petition process, saying she understood and supported what it meant to include a historic site like the Elizabet Ney Museum in the petition process. Cole said it’s one thing to have a historic museum; it’s another thing to have a police station or a fusion center.

Cole was concerned, specifically, with the tax implications of the local historic district. Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said all historic properties, in districts or not, were entitled to tax breaks. Contributing structures located within a local historic district are entitled to a tax break, Sadowsky said, but that tax break only applied to completed improvements added to the structure. It also is limited by time, whether it is owner-occupied or an income-producing property.

Shade’s first amendment failed on a vote of 4-3. The vote on that question was so confusing that Mayor Lee Leffingwell resorted to having those in favor raise their hand.

Shade then proposed a similar amendment that would exclude city property except that which “contains structures or features that contribute to the historic character of the district as determined by the Historic Landmark Commission; the amount of such property to be calculated as supporting shall not exceed 17 percent of the 51 percent of the land in the proposed district.”

Council Member Bill Spelman seconded her motion and it passed on a vote of 5-2, with Morrison and Martinez voting no.

Finally, the Mayor put the entire ordinance up for vote and it won unanimous approval. 

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