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Recent study reveals benefits of Austin’s historic neighborhoods

Friday, July 7, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Longtime Austin residents and historic preservation advocates have new data to back up their defense of neighborhood character thanks to a report that has made its way into local CodeNEXT discussions.

Last week, Council Member Leslie Pool shared a link to the Atlas of ReUrbanism, published late last year, on the City Council Message Board and said that the findings of the study would “give a good perspective on the questions we have before us in the code rewrite and illuminate the value that exists in terms of affordable market housing and small business within these older neighborhoods.”

Part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s ReUrbanism initiative, the Atlas analyzes 50 different U.S. cities in an attempt to highlight the material benefits that correlate with blocks of smaller, mixed-age buildings. For Austin, the study claims that compared to recently developed areas of the city, older, “character-rich” areas have 83 percent greater density, 72 percent more jobs in small businesses and nearly 80 percent more women- and minority-owned businesses. “High Character Score neighborhoods also have higher percentages and counts of affordable units,” the report states. “Older stock serves as unsubsidized, ‘naturally’ affordable housing.”

The report defines “character” by age and size: the smaller the buildings and the larger the range of structural maturity, the higher the score.

Back in April when Council was deliberating over the Strategic Housing Plan (adopted as a “blueprint”), Council members questioned city demographer Ryan Robinson about a memo he had submitted in opposition to the plan. In that memo, he warned that using a projected growth rate over the next 10 years to determine the city’s housing goals could end up having “unintended” repercussions. “My fear is that we will accelerate the removal of our organic, older affordable stock,” Robinson said at the April 13 meeting.

The blueprint does include measures to support preservation of historic housing stock, like lobbying for legislation around a Preservation Property Tax Exemption, aligning preservation and infrastructure policy and the creation of an East Central District Plan.

“I think that we need some significant amount of new housing stock to help us buy the time and the tax base to invest and preserve some of the older (stock),” Council Member Greg Casar said at the meeting.

Historic Landmark Commissioner Terri Myers is less convinced that more development will lead to more preservation. She told the Austin Monitor that the CodeNEXT draft defines neighborhood character by appearance with its form-based zoning, but that the fabric of a neighborhood goes much deeper than that. Older residents, she said, have “sweat equity” in these neighborhoods, where they have invested their time and energy to make them special.

“What (the CodeNEXT consultants) don’t seem to get is the meaning of authenticity,” she said. “We don’t want a reenactment of our history – we want the real deal.”

Rather than supporting these older neighborhoods, Planning Commissioner Karen McGraw told the Monitor, CodeNEXT has taken the attitude of scraping away the old to make way for the new. “Austin’s never had the need for urban renewal where we would have to scrape entire areas,” she said.

If the city focuses too much on appealing to newcomers, however, Myers said she fears that the brand-new housing units going up today could be the slums of the future. “(The new housing) is cheap in every sense,” she said. “(Developers) are going for the quick buck.”

The Atlas data could add weight to these concerns, but it will have to be disseminated quickly if it is to have any impact before the deadline for commission recommendations in January.

Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.

Photo by Joe Mabel made available through a Creative Commons license.

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