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Council kicks off process to reform Historic Landmark Commission

Monday, January 30, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

City Council on Thursday voted to initiate a code amendment that could make it easier for the Historic Landmark Commission to overrule the wishes of property owners.

Mayor Steve Adler overcame his own skepticism to vote for the measure, which passed 9-2 with Council members Ellen Troxclair and Delia Garza in opposition.

The aim is to strike the requirement of a two-thirds vote on the HLC to recommend historic zoning of a property against an owner’s objection.

The resolution was championed by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who argued that the city is losing many of its “sacred spaces” as property owners opt to scrap old houses in order to construct new ones.

“These are visible reminders of our history, and it changes our neighborhoods dramatically,” Tovo said. “There are parts of my district where I go by and I’m not struck anymore by the character of the houses, but by the number of demolitions and the number of vacant lots. It is really becoming an epidemic throughout our central city.”

Tovo cited a handful of high-profile cases in which the HLC failed to recommend historic zoning due to the supermajority threshold, including the case regarding the Montopolis Negro School. In that case, the recommendation fell one vote short, in part because several members were not present, which is another lingering issue with the commission.

Adler voiced his preference to reform the HLC by adding four alternate commissioners to shore up its attendance problem. He expressed skepticism that torpedoing the supermajority requirement would be the appropriate solution, but he explained that he would vote to initiate the code amendment process in order to listen to the continuing discussions.

“We have a challenge with respect to this commission,” Adler acknowledged before adding, “I don’t know how I will vote when it gets back to us.” The mayor indicated that, in the meantime, he may still pursue his proposal to appoint alternate members for the commission.

Even if the supermajority requirement is reduced to a simple majority, any historic zoning case opposed by a property owner would still need the support of three-fourths of Council. That high hurdle notwithstanding, supporters of lowering the HLC’s threshold hope that the move will help preserve more of what they consider to be Austin’s definitive character.

Before the vote, attorney Scott Marks urged Council to support the measure and noted the changes he’s seen since moving to Austin in the early 1990s.

“It’s a lot less affordable, it’s a lot less diverse, and there’s a lot less history,” Marks said.

Photo by Dustin Coates made available through a Creative Commons license. 

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