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Historic Preservation Office aims to replace 40-year-old preservation plan by next fall, with a focus on equity

Tuesday, July 19, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Austin’s Historic Preservation Office has taken on a new project to tackle equity issues, with ambitions to overhaul the city’s preservation plan for the first time since 1981.

In a briefing to the Historic Landmark Commission, staff reported that the Equity-Based Historic Preservation Plan is halfway through its two-year development period. To complete its second phase, the team is requesting $300,000 in funding from City Council.

The new plan will formalize a number of policy directives to address implicit biases in the historic zoning process that exclude marginalized communities. It will also address challenges wrought by Austin’s rapid growth, proposing economic incentive policies staff members hope could level the playing field against the speculative real estate market.

“We want the preservation plan to be equity based and community focused and really dig into some essential questions,” said project manager Cara Bertron. “How can we better recognize, preserve, and share important places and stories? How can preservation policies address issues like affordability, displacement and sustainability?”

Discriminatory zoning practices date back nearly a century, with the 1928 City Master Plan’s delineation of a negro district that would go on to suffer decades of severe underfunding. Between their exclusion from the housing market via redlining and subjection to industrial zoning and urban “renewal” projects, many black and Latino communities were denied the financial security needed to establish roots. At times the displacement was quite literal, as in the case of Interstate 35 and MoPac Expressway, both of which tore down large swaths of historic neighborhoods to accommodate growing traffic.

Critics have noticed that the criteria for landmark designation reinforce this historic pattern, barring marginalized communities from historic zoning protections awarded to their whiter, wealthier neighbors. Modeled after the National Register of Historic Places established in 1966, the criteria favor strict definitions of integrity and aesthetic value that exclude sites with disconnected histories challenged by institutional suppression. Lengthy public hearing processes and filing fees present further barriers, making it difficult for working-class communities to participate in preservation decisions.

The soaring number of demolition applications from investors in Austin’s booming real estate market poses further issues. In combination with the city’s late foray into local historic district protections (there are currently 8, in contrast with Houston’s 19 and San Antonio’s 32), preservation staff and landmark commissioners find themselves repeatedly unequipped to protect disappearing histories.

“Instead of proactively partnering with community members to identify and preserve important historic and cultural resources, most municipal preservation activities in Austin are reactive,” reads an equity briefing for the new plan’s working group. “Code-dictated processes and staff shortages mean that staff spend most of their time reviewing demolitions. To prevent demolition, a property must be individually significant as a historic landmark – a threshold more likely to be reached by architecturally grand buildings associated with wealthier, typically white people.”

In addition to city staff and Historic Landmark Commission members, the working group includes 26 community members offered $25 an hour in compensation funded by a grant from the Texas Historical Commission. After a year of workshopping solutions, the team aims to draft a proposal for over 100 recommendations by September. 

“The recommendations address many topics, like how to be more inclusive in the historic resources that we recognize and designate, how the historic review process can be made more efficient or effective,” Bertron said. “Others expand the concept of preservation to community and cultural preservation, intangible heritage, and look at how preservation can help affordability and anti-displacement work.”

Following review by the Historic Landmark Commission, the project will enter a yearlong phase of community outreach and refinement, with a final product before City Council projected for fall 2023. If approved, the $300,000 in requested budget funds will go primarily toward compensating project management staff, including 12 ambassador positions charged with leading community engagement.

“I think for a very long time we have been appropriately criticized for too much emphasis on a bunch of fancy buildings … and I’m really looking forward to this as we’ve desperately needed new tools,” said Commissioner Ben Heimsath. “But that budget doesn’t pass by itself … phase two is waiting, but so is the need for a continuing investment.”

Those interested in learning more or participating in engagement opportunities can check out the project website.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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