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New working group to study equity in preservation

Tuesday, May 4, 2021 by Amy Smith

Property demolitions in underserved areas of Austin have historically ranked among the most emotional cases to come before the Historic Landmark Commission – often the first stop in a succession of reviews of what’s proposed to be built in place of a building already standing.

Now, the HLC and the Historic Preservation Office aim to bring a more egalitarian playing field to the city’s preservation program with the formation of an equity-based Preservation Plan Working Group made up of about 30 community stakeholders.

The commission approved the creation of the working group at its April 26 meeting, delegating recruitment efforts to an HLC subcommittee and staff, with input from City Council members and others.

Working with staff, the HLC Preservation Plan Committee, composed of HLC Chair Terri Myers and commissioners Ben Heimsath, Beth Valenzuela and Alex Papavasiliou, is in the initial stages of fashioning a concept of what they hope will be an extensive cross-section of community members at the table. The group would be charged with crafting recommendations for improving the preservation program while introducing social justice metrics into the equation when considering a property’s historic significance.

The HLC will formally approve the complete working group at its June meeting.

The ambitious undertaking is made possible with $30,000 in funding from a Certified Local Government grant program administered by the Texas Historical Commission. The funds will go toward hiring a facilitator and compensating certain working group members who are not paid through their jobs to participate in the meetings, Elizabeth Brummett of the Historic Preservation Office told the Austin Monitor.

While the working group will include representatives from established entities, such as educational institutions and school districts that base their long-range planning on Austin’s growth and development trends, commissioners were adamant about the inclusion of voices that are either never heard, or heard and often ignored.

Myers said she wants to position the HLC to be more proactive rather than reactive when faced with the prospect of losing structures that have historic significance.

“Probably most of the items on our agendas involve people who want to demolish historic buildings,” she said, adding that while commissioners try to resolve these cases by demonstrating the historic value of a particular site, “some (applicants) are receptive and some are not.” Most of the time, property owners move ahead with demolition.

“Some of the most volatile issues that we’ve had have been properties associated with underserved communities, and so I’d like to see a preservation plan to educate neighborhood associations about the process,” she said, adding that some people still hold assumptions that preservationists are “little old ladies in tennis shoes saving the mansions of the great industrialists. Preservation is something that should be democratic.”

At its committee meeting to discuss the working group format, members made clear – replete with anecdotes of past experiences – that they don’t want city staffers to drive the outcome of the working group’s mission. Staffers assured them they wouldn’t.

“Once this group is up and running, they need to take initiative and they have to have some level of autonomy,” Heimsath said. “If the goal is to get the best plan possible from a broad number of interests, the ownership part of it becomes a very important part of broadening our constituency base and having something very strong to take to Council, and introduce more broadly to the community.”

Committee members and staffers will continue hashing out the makeup and charge of the working group later this month.

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