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New committee takes a crack at reforming city’s historic landmark rules

Tuesday, July 6, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

A new committee is taking a run – the third in the last six years – to try and fix what ails the city’s long-standing system of designating homes historic landmarks.


Austin’s Historic Landmark Ordinance has been labeled as the most generous ordinance of its kind in the country. An outside task force of land use commission members was constituted by Council, and then reconstituted two years later, for the task of considering adjustments.


Chair Betty Baker of the Zoning and Platting Commission, who dealt with many of the city’s earliest historic zoning cases as a city employee, led that group through two sets of changes to the 1974 ordinance.


Still, the quirks and problems of historic landmarks persist. This time around, Council has charged the Historic Landmark Commission’s Operations Committee with tackling the issue, with Laurie Limbacher as the chair. The stated purpose of the group is to curtail abuse of the ordinance’s tax abatements – which in recent months has spawned its own cottage industry – but at last week’s meeting it was clear the group was chafing at the bit to pursue some broader reforms when it came to landmark designation.


Limbacher’s preferred goal, she told her four-member committee, was to find ways to shift the focus of the ordinance from individual landmark designation to the creation of local historic districts. Local historic districts, still somewhat new to the city, have floundered due to the amount of work necessary from the neighborhood to pursue the process. Limbacher wanted to see more progress.


“We’re struggling against the limits of our tools that our program relies on,” Limbacher said. “I think it’s a reflection of the fact that we’re still behind the curve when it comes to local historic district versus individual landmark designation.”


Too many neighborhoods are fighting individual cases in order to preserve their setbacks and height limits, instead of pursuing the superior overall local district designation, Limbacher said.


“We need to shift our preservation strategy to local districts,” Limbacher said. “I know that’s not related to the specifics we were considering, but that’s clearly what we’ve been struggling against in recent years.”


Suggested short-term goals, to be submitted to Council in August, appear fairly cut-and-dried and definitely temporary: limiting the number of owner-initiated cases at Council each month to three, and limiting new cases each month at the Historic Landmark Commission, other than those initiated in response to demolition permits or within local recognized districts, to one.


However, the committee has 11 more meetings – and potentially two public hearings – before submitting suggestions for long-term goals to Council, Limbacher said.


The committee wants to consider a long-term strategy, one that stretches across geography, ethnicity and income, when it comes to historic designation. Current landmark designations in terms of type, purpose and value need to be compiled. Committee members agreed it was time to look at designation that is fairly spread across the city – and not just its wealthiest areas – with the intention of recognizing both architectural excellence and the personal contribution of a prior owner that goes beyond Austin’s early wealthy lawyers and doctors.


That is, of course, the conundrum the committee faces. The city’s wealthiest residents owned the city’s highest, and finest, historic buildings. This committee wanted to consider a far broader base of who might be important and why their homes might be historic.


“I think, long-term, we do need to look at the mix we have designated,” Limbacher said during the discussion. “I don’t think it’s that hard. We really do have a lot compiled.”


The committee did agree to a review of peer cities. Limbacher served as a consultant on the city’s Downtown Plan and compiled an extensive review of comparable cities. Some parameters of that list will be up for discussion at its meeting next week.


Limbacher’s goal is to get a proposal to Council for its first week in November, with possible feedback sessions in August and October. Those sessions will depend upon the committee’s progress.

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