Austin tries to strike balance between historic preservation, adding housing supply


As property demand, development and demolition in and around Austin’s oldest neighborhoods touch unprecedented levels, the question of how to preserve Austin’s physical history while moving the needle on its housing supply needs has reached a critical point.

Since 2000, nearly 800 structures tagged for historic significance by city staff have been demolished, according to city data.

Officials say rapid growth has put pieces of Austin’s history against the ticking clock of redevelopment. City reports show historic preservation in the capital city has long lacked resources and, for years, has lagged behind Texas’ other large cities, which focus on saving historic areas rather than individual landmarks.

Austin City Council recently directed the city manager to consider reinforcing historic preservation in the city through strategies ranging from adding staff to amending the city’s process.

However, with the housing supply and affordability crises hovering over the city, many say Austin should direct its political will toward its goal of adding 135,000 units to the housing inventory by 2025.

Some argue preservation and added supply can go hand-in-hand, but experts say time is running out.

Limited resources and reactive preservation

A 2017 audit of the city’s preservation practice showed although Austin had among the smallest preservation staff compared to eight other Texas cities, its caseload was 50 percent higher than average.

City staff say the heavy caseload is owed to the growing rate of demolition applications for properties in Central and East Austin, where land demand has increased development pressure. A 2017 Community Impact Newspaper analysis showed there were nearly as many demolitions in Central Austin between 2010 and 2017 as there were in the previous 30 years.

By code Austin’s Historic Preservation Office must review any demolition application for a structure older than 40 years. If staff finds historic significance, they recommend preservation and refer the case to the City Council-appointed historic landmark commission for further review and a vote.

Cara Bertron, one of two case managers in Austin’s preservation office, said limited resources has led to a preservation policy that reacts to the deluge of individual demolition applications rather than proactively works with the community to identify and preserve the city’s historic structures and areas.

This contrasts sharply to cities like Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth, where preservation efforts focus on identifying historic districts that encompass swaths of structures and neighborhoods at once, said Kate Singleton, executive director at nonprofit Preservation Austin. The cities each boast between 15 and 30 historic districts while Austin claims five, two of which were just approved in 2018.

Singleton said Austin did not begin identifying historic districts until 2004 while the aforementioned cities had employed the tool since at least the 1980s.

Bertron said the issue of focusing preservation on landmarks is two-fold. Properties are demolished if they do not rise to the standard of a historic landmark, even if they might contribute to the character of potentially historic area. Over time, Bertron said, those individual demolitions deplete the area of its opportunity for local historic district designation.

“[The demolitions] erode the fabric,” Bertron said.

Since resources in Austin are limited to reacting to demolition applications, Singleton said creation of local historic districts relies heavily on the initiative of neighborhoods. However, since the process can be arduous and extremely expensive, Singleton said lower-income neighborhoods, no matter how historic, are often excluded from participation.

Ian Reddy, a resident of Travis Heights, said his neighborhood’s failed effort at a 1,200-property local historic district took nearly 12 years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Reddy owed the failure to the overextension of preservation staff and what he called an overall lack of support from city leaders.

“The lack of local historic districts in Austin is a real testament to how we look at our city’s history,” Reddy said.

City leaders push for preservation support

The resolution approved by City Council on June 14, brought by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, asks the city manager to consider changes to the preservation office and historic landmark commission that “more meaningfully protect and enhance neighborhoods, buildings and sites” that reflect Austin’s history.

The resolution seeks to create a new preservation planning division within the city’s planning office; allocate funding for more staff, annual citywide historic surveys and community education; strengthen review of demolition permits; and provide greater assistance to neighborhoods applying for local historic districts.

“We need to realize that as we invest in our planning department we need to invest, too, in our preservation program,” Tovo said. “We need to make sure our history will be there for future generations.”

Tovo said this effort to fortify historic preservation comes after years of community pleas for more resources. She said part of the issue in preservation is owed to the lack of city investment. With city budget talks still to come, it remains unknown how much City Council will invest in these efforts.

Balancing preservation and housing supply

In Austin the conversation of preservation has created friction with those who say the city should prioritize its housing supply needs.

Before City Council voted on June 14, Kevin McLaughlin, a board member at the pro-housing density group AURA, expressed concern that a potential preservation planning Division would stymie the city’s efforts to provide housing to its rapidly growing population.

“I worry that this [division]will be incentivized to limit growth in the name of historic preservation,” McLaughlin said. “I think Austin is a great city, but I think its future is brighter than its past.”

Scott Turner, an infill developer and board member of Evolve Austin, a non profit that advocates for compact and connected development, said amid Austin’s  housing crisis, preservation can only work with incentives to develop more units, which he said is missing from the council resolution.

CodeNEXT, the city’s rewrite of Austin’s land-development code, has exacerbated the sharp political lines between the community’s preservationists and pro-density sects. The latest proposal attempts to offer such an incentive by reducing regulation for accessory units on lots where the original structure is preserved.

Stephanie Phillips, a senior specialist with San Antonio’s preservation office, a city with 30 local historic districts, said there has been no shortage of infill development in the city’s historic neighborhoods.

Tovo said the community needs to have “less divisive” conversations about housing and preservation.

“The two things are not mutually exclusive; it would be a mistake for someone to think that because we’re investing in preservation we’re trying to restrict from change,” Tovo said. “From my perspective, as we look at the housing situation, we need to also be looking at preserving affordable housing and existing structures.”

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  1. Melanie Martinez

    This is such an important issue and I appreciate your digging into the subject. Just to clarify, Travis Heights-Fairview Park hasn’t applied for a Local Historic District designation yet, although that is always a goal. It was the much-smaller Bluebonnet Hills section of Travis Heights that did not win its LHD designation. Thank you for this story!

  2. It’s time that the City Leaders realize that there comes a time when “growth” becomes uncontrollable. Leave the neighborhoods alone, quit approving the conversion of single lot homes to multiple dwellings thus ruining the neighborhoods. These multiple dwellings leave no yard space for children to play. Furthermore, most of these neighborhoods have NO sidewalks THUS the people living in the multiple dwelling structures adds more people in the streets to stroll in the evenings with their pet dogs.

  3. I have not seen any kind of balance whatsoever. The Preservation office clearly answers to developers. We’ve sat through countless meetings and watched the stacked board nix any kind of landmark designation whatsoever. Our group tried to save the home of the first Latina teacher in Austin. It did not happen. In fact they promised a plaque, which never appeared. The house has been torn down and it’s a short term rental. If you think going to an Austin Historic Commission meeting will help save anything, think again. I really feel for those sincere board members who really try, but are outnumbered by obstructionist appointees who know next to nothing about history. It’s a sad state of affairs.

Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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