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Planning Commission votes to recommend Hyde Park Historic District

Thursday, October 21, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

The city moved another step closer to establishing Hyde Park as a local historic district last week when the Planning Commission voted to approve a staff recommendation and send the neighborhood’s application on to City Council. Should Council approve the application, homeowners in the neighborhood would be eligible for generous tax abatements but also subject to rigorous design standards.


The Planning Commission’s decision was just the latest step in what Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky called a “years-long process” on the part of Hyde Park residents to gain Local Historic District status for their neighborhood.


If City Council approves the plan, owner-occupied residential properties within the Hyde Park Local Historic District will be eligible for a seven-year property tax abatement for rehabilitation of a contributing building, or a non-contributing building if rehabilitation returns it to contributing status. The city will abate the property taxes on the added value of the home after work has been completed and approved by the Historic Landmark Commission.


As part of the application process, residents had to secure, via petition, the active support of at least 51 percent of the homeowners in the district. They also had to prove that at least 51 percent of the buildings in the proposed district are contributing structures – meaning they were built more than 50 years ago and maintain their original appearance.


There are 640 buildings in the proposed Hyde Park District, 480 of which are contributing structures, Sadowsky told the commission.


According to the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association’s website, this effort to get historic district designation began in 2008. However, Lorre Weidlich, the chair of the historic district project, told commissioners that it has actually been going on much longer than that. “Dreamers, planners, and preservationists in our neighborhood have been planning for this for decades, literally,” she said. “Hyde Park needs protection, not just for the sake of those who live there but for the sake of preserving the history of the City of Austin.”


Linda Team, speaking on behalf of the Heritage Society of Austin, said “We want to celebrate the achievement of this neighborhood to preserve the character of the neighborhood. Local historic districts, we believe, are the tool of the future for preserving what we have here in Austin.”


Not everyone at the meeting was supportive, however. Hyde Park resident Kevin Hayburn told the commission that though he supports the concept of the historic district, he doesn’t support the plan as proposed. “The plan is at once too broad and too specific,” he said. “If you place too many restrictions on what you can do with a historic home – as I believe this plan does – you prevent innovation; you prevent imagination.”


Under the city’s Local Historic District guidelines, the price homeowners pay for property tax abatements is agreeing to abide by neighborhood-determined design standards for new construction and additions to existing buildings.


In the case of Hyde Park, those standards would include avoiding alterations “with no historic basis,” retaining original front facades, retaining original doors and windows, locating additions to the rear of the property, and many other restrictions meant to help preserve the “character” and “historic significance” of the neighborhood.


Hayburn said that he finds some of those guidelines too onerous – for example, he said he doesn’t see the value in demanding that all new porches be fenced in or that all new garage apartments face the street. “Neighbors shouldn’t have to go the Preservation Office or the Landmark Commission when they want to change their front door,” he said.


More importantly, Hayburn argued, the current plan is substantially different from the one neighborhood residents originally signed on to. “There are many changes from what the people who signed the petition agreed to and what’s in the plan,” he said. “It’s not clear my neighbors know what’s in this plan.”


For example, he noted that many of the guidelines that were recommendations in the original proposed plan had become requirements by the time they reached this most recent draft.


But Weidlich pointed out that the changed standards were voted on at a Hyde Park Neighborhood Association meeting on Sept. 13 and that all residents are informed of and welcome to attend all meetings where such decisions are made. She also said that the reason some of the language of the guidelines was changed from voluntary to mandatory is because the city’s Law Department asked the neighborhood to do so. “The city requires us to have a legally airtight document,” she said.


The neighborhood association will vote on other city-requested changes to the plan at their Nov. 1 meeting.


As to Hayburn’s concern that the guidelines will inhibit innovation and creativity, Weidlich said, “We welcome new construction to look contemporary, and we believe every house should speak to its time.”


She also said that the guidelines would only affect homeowners making “significant changes to the exterior.” “We’re not requiring anyone to change anything that already exists,” she said.


Commission support for the Hyde Park Local Historic District was clear; several commissioners congratulated the neighborhood association on their achievement. The commission voted 6-1 to support the plan and send the application to City Council in mid-November, with Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez voting against and commissioners Mandy Dealey and David Anderson absent.

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