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Landmark commission embraces common historic design standards for Austin

Friday, December 4, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Historic Landmark Commission has given its unanimous support to proposed design standards aimed at making it easier for neighborhoods to create historic districts in the city.

If approved by City Council, the design standards will apply to existing historic landmarks, properties and National Register districts on an advisory basis. They will also apply to all future historic districts, though new districts will have the option of adopting more specific rules to supplement their standards.

Former deputy preservation officer Cara Bertron explained, in a briefing to the commission, that the design standards would help increase equity in historic preservation by reducing the expense and level of research required to submit a historic district application. Currently, creation of the standards rests on the neighborhood volunteers who hope to create a district. In addition, she said, a single set of historic design standards would give property owners in proposed districts predictability and a clearer picture of the process.

“They’ll know from the beginning what designation entails,” Bertron said. “One set of design standards follows good practices in preservation. It’s something that many other preservation programs across the country do.”

Work on the citywide standards started in 2018. Bertron explained that the rules for the city’s eight current historic districts were already “95 percent the same” though they were the result of long, individual processes that relied on volunteer expertise or help from a paid consultant.

In contrast, said Bertron, the proposed design standards focus on being clear to everyone, with “accessible language, clear graphics and consistent symbols” that are intended to help people understand the process and how standards apply.

“This is very timely and very impressive,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath, who moved to approve the standards with “extreme urgency.”

“This is a tool we really have needed for a while,” he said.

Preservation Austin Board Member Alyson McGee spoke in support of the standards on behalf of the organization.

“We are optimistic that the design standards will lead to new local historic district applications in underrepresented areas of Austin,” McGee said. “This will create a more efficient and effective process for the benefit of all. We believe the standards support the preservation of our city’s diverse heritage for the people of Austin in a way that’s compatible with increasing density.”

The standards, which are based on the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Properties, are available online. With the recommendation from the Historic Landmark Commission, they will now proceed to the Design, Planning, Downtown, and Zoning and Platting commissions, with City Council making the final determination about whether they will be adopted.

Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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