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Heritage Society presents historic landmark recommendations

Thursday, December 2, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Heritage Society of Austin presented its list of recommendations on revisions to the city’s historic landmark ordinance last night as the Historic Landmark Commission’s Operations Committee began a round of stakeholder feedback.


Council recently extended the deadline to receive recommendations on changes from the commission to the end of March. The Heritage Society has been meeting independently for a number of months with its own membership, working through its own ordinance concerns.


One comment that rose to the top last night is that the commissioners and the Heritage Society both want to keep abatement recipients accountable. Too often, Commissioner Joe Arriaga noted, a tax abatement is granted to commercial buildings with little time given to the annual inspection to make sure the building is maintained. The city simply is not staffed to complete extensive surveys.


Society representatives Lin Team, Tere O’Connell, and Jacqui Shraad said annual building inspections need to be more meaningful and comprehensive, with a focus on compliance with applicable criteria and, most importantly, maintenance. The Heritage Society supports a “re-application fee” that would be used to fund additional staff.


Arriaga, who worked with former Preservation Officer Betty Baker during the early years of the landmark program, said he had been shocked by the condition of some of the buildings. At one time, Arriaga put the historic medallions on historic buildings. Today, he said, some of those buildings wouldn’t pass muster.


“Some of the biggest complaints I’ve had is trying to fix some of these buildings with absentee owners, trying to get them to take care of them. It’s always been a big issue,” Arriaga said. “If you look at some of these buildings with medallions now, some of them are horrible. We never would have voted them historic.”


O’Connell agreed that inspections are the key to holding historic buildings to a higher standard. Abatements should be ended and certificates of appropriateness denied if the buildings remain in dilapidated condition, she said.


HLC Chair Laurie Limbacher agreed that dealing with the conditions of existing landmarks would address one of the chief concerns among critics. Other concerns include the criticism that landmarks are not equally dispersed throughout the city and that abatements are too excessive.


Among the other suggestions from the Heritage Society:


  • Establish a set of incentives for owner-occupied residential landmarks designated on or after January 1, 2010, that offers an annually adjusted hard cap per landmark and a rehabilitation incentive that would mirror those offered to contributing structures in Local Historic Districts, with a trigger for incentive program review based on impact to ad valorem tax revenues.

  • Grandfather all structures granted historic status before Dec. 31, 2009, but transition to a new incentive structure upon any transfer of ownership.

  • Maintain the existing abatement structure for commercial properties.

The Heritage Society supports limiting the number of owner-initiated landmark designations each year, with special consideration for structures in homestead preservation districts. Those cases would be heard four times each year.


Commissioner John Rosato noted that the average number of properties approved for landmark designation in any given year is between 13 and 15, with the 49 approved properties in 2009 being the anomaly. So far this year, only seven structures have been designated historic.


The society also recommended a private fund for those who might need financial assistance with research or application fees on either a homestead or a historic district application.


The Heritage Society will likely become a regular feature on the committee’s agenda in the coming months. Limbacher has proposed bringing in stakeholder groups, such as owners of historic properties and representatives from various appraisal districts.


The last meeting of the year for the committee will be Dec. 15.

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