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Council hears long-awaited historic preservation recommendations

Monday, May 2, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Nearly a year after passing a resolution directing the city manager to prepare recommendations to improve Austin’s historic preservation program, City Council got its first look at what a newly designed program might look like at its meeting last Thursday.


If implemented, those recommendations would mean higher standards for individual properties, a push for more Local Historic Districts, and a $2,000 cap on tax incentives for owner-occupied historic properties.


Several of the recommendations staff and the Historic Landmark Commission came up with are aimed at addressing concerns that the current program does not encourage participation in poorer parts of the city and is financially prohibitive for those who wish to participate.


One major policy recommendation would establish revolving, low-interest loan programs for low-income landmark owners to do small rehabilitation projects. This is vital, said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky, if the city hopes to expand the historic preservation program to more neighborhoods in the eastern and southern parts of the city.


“Older houses are more expensive to maintain, and people who own historic landmarks do not have the freedom to go to a home improvement store and buy replacement products,” Sadowsky said.


There have been some questions about whether the city can legally loan money as part of a revolving fund, but Sadowsky told In Fact Daily he believes it can as long as it establishes a separate intermediary agency to run the program.


“The way they do it in Raleigh and some cities in Virginia is they set up a separate agency, so it’s not actually city funds that are being loaned out, but the city is funding an agency that does that,” he said. “The city provides the seed money to get the fund started, but then it’s the responsibility of the fund holder to keep it growing.


“You don’t service a huge number of loans at any one time, but you’re doing specific projects and then, after the loan is paid off, that money goes back into somebody else’s project.”


After Thursday’s meeting, Sadowsky said that revolving loan funds are just one of the recommendations aimed at greater participation by people on the east side and in south Austin. Another is the higher incentive cap for houses that are at least 100 years old.


“The higher ($2,250) cap is really designed for that because the majority of our 100-year-old houses are on the east side,” Sadowsky said. “Plus there are active survey efforts in a lot of East Austin. We’re trying to help out with surveys and getting people educated about Local Historic District designations.”


Staff also presented an analysis of the economic benefits of historic preservation Thursday, which has become a controversial topic, with preservationists attempting to justify the program’s generous incentives in the face of economic uncertainty and taxing entities like AISD and Travis County either opting out the program or considering the possibility.


Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Development Review Department told Council that research proves that a strong historic preservation program is good for local economies. Studies show that historic status increases property values by up to 21 percent, Rusthoven said. Plus, for every $1 million in preservation, 18 jobs are created vs. 15 for new construction, he said.


“Renovation requires more hands-on work and a greater level of skilled labor,” said Rusthoven. “So, dollar per dollar, you can get more construction jobs out of historic preservation work than you can out of new construction.”


In addition, studies have shown that heritage tourists (travelers visiting at least one historic site as a primary part of a trip) spent $1.43 billion in Texas in 1997. Heritage travelers spend an average of $623 per trip, compared to $457 other travelers spend, and stay 1.5 nights longer.


Asked after the meeting whether he believes heritage travelers are coming to Austin to see one of the hundreds of private homes zoned historic in West Austin, Rusthoven said his studies make no distinctions as to what those travelers are coming to see.


“They’re probably not flying in to take a walk around Pemberton Heights,” he said. “But there could be people who come to in to visit the Governor’s Mansion, the Capitol, then go down Congress Avenue and over to the French Legation. There probably aren’t people who are flying in from Japan to see a house in Hyde Park, but they might mix it in with other stuff.”


Meanwhile, Sadowsky said that based on information provided by Heritage Society home tours, there is evidence that tourists are coming to Austin to visit residential areas.


Rusthoven said staff will present their recommendations to the AISD Board of Trustees and Travis County Commissioners Court in the near future.

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