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Staffers provide update on new equity-focused historic preservation plan

Tuesday, April 5, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

As Austin faces rapid change, the city is drafting a new equity-based preservation plan – replacing the existing plan from 1981 – in hopes of better preserving Austin’s cultural heritage. 

“Much has changed in Austin over the past 40 years … so we need an up-to-date plan with up-to-date policies and tools to help steward local heritage,” Cara Bertron with the Housing and Planning Department told the Design Commission March 28.

Bertron described how the historic preservation field has changed in recent decades. “There’s an expanded emphasis on telling the full American story, not just the stories of those with power and wealth,” she said, explaining that the field has increasingly recognized middle- and working-class heritage and explored how preservation can advance social justice.

As the plan’s name indicates, equity is a primary consideration. In light of that, the planning process has taken a bottom-up approach, with a working group of community members leading the plan’s development. The group, created by the Historic Landmark Commission last year, has met several times in recent months to discuss goals for the plan. Group members’ demographics roughly align with Austin’s demographics.

The group has also drafted an “equity evaluation framework” so that “equity is considered throughout the plan, not in a separate section,” Bertron said. “The hope is that it will result in recommendations and policies that don’t inadvertently cause harm to historically underrepresented communities.”

A draft version of the plan is due in June. Once the plan is released, city staffers will further engage community members, particularly those from underrepresented communities, and present to various boards and commissions. After staff finalizes the plan, City Council will vote on whether to adopt it.

Betron explained that the final plan “will include citywide policy recommendations for new programs and tools to explore” but will not recommend specific new landmarks or districts.

Commissioner Melissa Henao-Robledo asked what the city could do to ensure it doesn’t take another 40 years to update the city’s preservation plan. “I think it largely will be a matter of community accountability in many ways,” Bertron said, adding that planners have been working to make preservation a priority among various city departments.

Commissioner Josue Meiners wondered how preservation works in a city experiencing an affordability crisis, noting that preservation can prevent new housing from being built. 

“Safeguarding an existing landscape doesn’t necessarily mean not adding density,” Bertron said, pointing to conversations in the working group about how accessory dwelling units can be appropriate in neighborhoods designated as historic.

Meiners also asked how “preserving a structure” can “equate to preserving the cultural character of a neighborhood.” Bertron explained how in preservation work “there’s a real recognition of the value that people bring to the built environment but also a recognition that the built environment is where a lot of stories are contained.”

Some commissioners lamented that Austin’s rapid growth might mean the plan is too little too late.

“I think it’s great that we try to preserve buildings, but preserving buildings doesn’t really preserve culture. The culture is already gone,” Commissioner Evan Taniguchi said, pointing to how many longtime Austinites have been displaced due to the rising cost of living and redevelopment pressure.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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