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Historic commission panel studies complexities of landmark ordinance

Thursday, September 16, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Historic Landmark Commission’s Operations Committee intends to answer some of the tougher questions about Austin’s more-than-generous landmark ordinance, but recent discussion often has led to more questions than answers.


With a year-end deadline, Chair Laurie Limbacher has the committee’s work mapped out, down to the week, and a list of speakers and participants at every meeting. The work plan has a sequence of topics, among them: best practices; historic property identification; the structure of benefits; allocation of city resources; and economic benefits of landmark status on property.


Wednesday night’s meeting was to grapple with the scope of the program, and owner Rick Hardin, who has researched the issue, had run the county appraisal district numbers on landmarked properties in a number of ways: by zip code; by year built; by year landmarked; and so on.


“I think we need to know where our landmarks are,” Limbacher told her four-member committee, being assisted by Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. “We need to know what is the vision for the future. What do we want to emphasize for the future. Do we want landmarks in certain parts of the city, or do we believe, as they say, that really history happens where it happens.”


But even as the group went over Hardin’s spreadsheet, different points would pop up: Would a scatter gram be a better tool to judge geographic dispersion, and how would the prevalence of older buildings in a neighborhood be weighed? Or what about teasing out those properties that carried landmark status but were not receiving a tax break due to tax-exempt status? And should there be some consideration and discussion of reviewing current landmarks to determine whether tax abatements should be for a certain term or into perpetuity?


Commissioner Joe Arriaga, in fact, worried aloud that the committee was raising so many different issues and questions that it might be difficult to explore all angles being discussed before the committee could land on recommendations.


“I’m worried we haven’t had the time to look at all these parameters,” Arriaga noted when Limbacher pressed him for any concerns.


Arriaga, who was at the meeting along with colleague John Rosato, also expressed concerns about historic districts. (Patti Hansen was absent from the meeting.) While Limbacher and the larger Historic Landmark Commission have staked a claim that the districts would relieve the pressure on the permitting process, the city barely had two districts. Limbacher agreed that might mean revisiting the application guidelines.


Jacqui Schraad of the Heritage Society of Austin was on hand for the meeting and noted that labels such as “best practices” often begged for specifics. How is the term “best practice” defined? Was it the largest number of preserved houses? Should it be the program that meshes best with city aspirations? Would it be a program that moved the city towards a particular goal?


A number of questions were posed but not all those questions had answers. Next week, a representative of the Texas Historic Commission will be on hand to discuss historic preservation identification. That meeting, on the fifth floor of One Texas Center, is scheduled for 4:30pm on Wednesday in order to accommodate presentations.

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