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Preservation office gets new design standards and equity plan

Tuesday, September 13, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Big changes for Austin’s Historic Preservation Office are on the horizon, with new historic design standards and an equity-based preservation plan on course to bring major updates to the city’s preservation program.

Cara Bertron, senior housing and planning officer, stopped by the Historic Landmark Commission last week with an update on both projects, which are targeted for completion by the end of this year and next year, respectively. Staff hopes the new tools will help to streamline the notoriously demanding review process and reinvigorate community-led preservation as Austin continues to manage growth.

Efforts to revamp the city’s design standards date back to 2018, when preservationists noted that incoherent guidelines had made it increasingly difficult for commissioners and property owners alike to navigate projects in historic districts. In addition to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Properties for Historic and National Register Districts, preservation staffers reference different design standards for each of the city’s eight locally designated historic districts.

“The standards are solid, all based on national standards, but they’re also pretty vague,” Bertron said. “So you would get a situation where a property owner and their designer could have spent a lot of time and a fair amount of money coming up with something that they felt met the standards, and then bring it to staff in the commission that could reasonably disagree.”

Observing this pattern, staff members across several departments collaborated with community stakeholders to develop clear and consistent citywide design standards, complete with detailed illustrations and a glossary to help navigate technical architectural terms. After years of hashing out details, the new and improved standards are set to appear before the Planning Commission in October. If approved, the standards will move forward as a code change for a vote by City Council.

Next year will also usher in changes on the broader preservation front, with the city budget set to fund full-time staff and community outreach personnel to spearhead the final phase of the equity-based preservation plan. The plan, still in its draft form, includes 109 recommendations for preservation policy that will see another year of review before it reaches Council. New community engagement strategies, legacy business relief, proactive stewardship incentives, and expanded historic survey programs are all on the table.

“We have done an amazing amount so far to queue up for the changes that are so badly needed,” Historic Landmark Commissioner Ben Heimsath said. “This is a great start, but the heavy lifting is still in front of us.”

Those interested in keeping up with the project may sign up for updates and learn about participation opportunities here.

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

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