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How the Historic Landmark Commission works to preserve Austin’s history

Tuesday, November 9, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

The Historic Landmark Commission is an all-volunteer, 11-member board appointed by members of City Council. The commission reviews applications for heritage grants, considers historic designations, weighs the merits of tax exemption applications, and acts generally as an advocate for historic preservation in the city.

The powers and authority of the landmark commission rest on one key age in a building’s history: 50 years. After a building reaches the age of 50, it becomes eligible for a historic designation and another layer of review is needed to approve things like demolition or substantial changes to a property.

While the commission covers a fairly broad range of topics and areas, the most common way a case appears before the commission is that an owner will look to make some changes to a property, but because of its age, the structure needs to be reviewed by the Historic Landmark Commission.

For example, the owner of the last residential house on Rainey Street was looking for a demolition permit this summer. However, since the home was constructed in the early 20th century, the building had to undergo a review to see if there were other viable options to demolishing it, like preserving the building or relocating it.

Demolitions are common, but so are instances where homeowners seek to change the architecture of their home. If a homeowner wants to add another floor or change a facade in a home that’s more than 50 years old, the alterations usually require special consideration.

In most cases, many of these changes can be approved administratively – especially when the changes are relatively straightforward. Something like constructing a ramp for accessibility or a side deck can usually be approved relatively quickly and without thorough review by landmark commissioners. For something like demolishing a historic building, the process gets more involved.

Even before any of these cases are discussed during a commission meeting, city staffers with Austin’s Historic Preservation Office, a separate entity from the landmark commission, put research and documentation together about the property in question.

The city finds out details about the ownership history, highlights noteworthy figures who have lived there, and explores what role the property has played in the city’s history. Staffers also make recommendations about what should be done in the case and evaluate whether or not the property meets the criteria for historic designation.

The city has a set of design standards that look at things like neighborhood character and a property’s history to determine whether or not something qualifies.

From there, cases are discussed at commission meetings where the public has a chance to weigh in before the commissioners make a decision. The commission may grant the applicant’s proposal, deny it, or postpone the decision and revisit the issue at a later meeting. In general, commissioners are skeptical and hesitant when it comes to changing properties in older neighborhoods like Hyde Park, Tarrytown and parts of downtown Austin.

In one case from November 2020, the commission postponed and ultimately denied an owner’s proposal to paint a mural on the side of his building because it was located in the Congress Avenue Historic District.

Cases like these highlight the central tension of the landmark commission’s preservationist goal of preserving things as they are.

At times, the commission will initiate the historic zoning process against the wishes of a property owner, which requires a supermajority vote. The most noteworthy recent example was the case of the Delta Kappa Gamma house. The organization was seeking to sell its aging headquarters because it was too expensive to maintain, but the process was heavily stalled because it was recommended for a historic designation.

The commission can be pragmatic, however. In some situations, the commission would like to preserve a property, but due to its deteriorated condition, grants a demolition or relocation permit.

In December 2020, the owner of the building that used to be McPhail Flowers was granted a demolition permit because the structure was beyond repair, even though it would normally have been recommended for a historic designation.

When a property officially becomes a historic landmark, the level of scrutiny is raised even higher. Things like additions, repainting, or installing a commercial sign or fences become more difficult. In one case, the commission initially denied a homeowner their proposal to put a pool in their front yard because their home was a historic landmark.

There are a number of cases that don’t typically garner much fanfare because the goals of the commission and the property owner are aligned – both parties want to preserve the historic nature of a property.

A good example of this would be the case of the former estate of Joe and Teresa Lozano Long, which burned down in the spring of 2021. A partial demolition permit was granted with little pushback because the new owners were seeking to restore the property as well as they could.

In return for and to incentivize preservation efforts, property owners are able to apply for various abatements that lower their tax burden. For homeowners who rehabilitate properties that contribute to a historic district, the city of Austin abates 100 percent of the city property taxes assessed on the added value of a property.

Lindsey Derrington, executive director of Preservation Austin, told the Austin Monitor, “The city’s tools for protecting historic places, including zoning and tax incentives, are so procedural that it’s easy to forget that historic preservation is such a positive, celebratory movement. We’re connecting people with neighborhoods, legacy businesses, historic parks across Austin that make this city so special. We can’t take those places for granted.”

Another important thing to consider about the landmark designation process is that the Historic Landmark Commission, while influential early in the process, does not make the final decisions. After a recommendation leaves the commission, it goes to the Planning Commission, and from there, it heads to City Council for a final vote.

Photo of the Phillips-Bremond-Houston house by Michael Brockhoff, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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