Commission’s role in Georgetown’s historic preservation under new debate

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A proposed ordinance to limit the Historic and Architectural Review Commission’s ability to approve changes to historic properties has renewed debate and tensions over the commission’s role in Georgetown’s historic preservation.

City Council Member Kevin Pitts brought the proposal to the council in August. Council members voted 5-2 to have the city attorney draft an ordinance that would give the council final say on approvals. The commission, also known as HARC, would instead serve an advisory role on applications to modify or demolish historic structures in Georgetown or develop new properties within historic districts.

Council members anticipate holding a workshop this fall before taking a vote.

Removing HARC’s authority would change the application process for a broad array of historic property owners, from Old Town residents wanting to make upgrades to their homes to developers seeking to build new multiuse buildings downtown.

Georgetown’s most recent historic resource survey, which was adopted by council members in August 2017, included 1,677 properties in the city’s historic areas.

Pitts said decisions over certificates should be made by City Council rather the seven-member appointed commission in order to provide better consistency and faster responses to historic property owners who seek to make renovations or otherwise change their homes or commercial buildings. He was joined by council members Steve Fought, Tommy Gonzalez, John Hesser and Valerie Nicholson in voting to support a draft ordinance and workshop on HARC’s certificate-granting authority.

“At the end of the day, the No. 1 thing is that the decisions should be with our elected officials,” Pitts said.

Council Member Rachael Jonrowe, who joined Council Member Anna Eby in voting against Pitts’ proposal, said she did not think there was good rationale to strip the commission of its authority.

“We need to [consider changes to HARC]in a very deliberate and thoughtful way, and I don’t feel that is what has happened with this current proposal,” Jonrowe said.

Commission’s role

HARC meets monthly to consider policy related to historic preservation and design review in the city. Reviewing and granting certificates of appropriateness, which are required for renovations or demolitions to historic structures as well as new construction in historic areas, are among commissioners’ primary duties.

Applicants work with city staff to ensure applications are complete and in line with city regulation before going to HARC for a hearing and a commission vote.

According to existing city code, HARC grants certificates, but applicants can appeal denials to City Council. At least five of the seven council members must vote in support to overturn the commission.

HARC’s purview covers structures and districts centered in an area of town that includes the city’s Downtown Overlay and Old Town Overlay districts as well as four historic districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Out of 1,677 properties included in Georgetown’s recent historic property survey, 193 are located in the city’s downtown, and 865 are in Old Town. The majority of the Old Town properties were given low priority ratings, meaning the properties are significantly altered from their original appearance and not associated with any historic trend, according to the survey.

Differing Opinions

The proposal to change HARC has drawn opposing sides among elected leaders, property owners and residents. More than 20 people spoke to City Council on Aug. 14, when Pitts introduced his proposal, to share concerns with changing HARC, which supporters say acts much like a gatekeeper to preserve the character of historic neighborhoods.

Michael Walton, president of Preservation Georgetown, a nonprofit organization that offers grants for restoration projects on historic residential and commercial structures, said there could very well be ways to improve HARC and the application process for property owners, but HARC’s decision-making  authority needs to stay intact.

He added Preservation Georgetown members feel they cannot depend on City Council to protect the city’s historic character, which he believes benefits residents and brings visitors to the city, providing a boost to local tourism.

“The impression that we have, given recent comments and the history of what we’ve seen from council, is that there doesn’t seem to be an interest in historic preservation; it’s more of an interest in basically letting people do whatever they want for the sake of financial benefit,” Walton said.

HARC’s critics argue that the commission’s decision-making is too subjective and can make it complicated and expensive for homeowners and building owners to modify or improve their properties.

Pitts said the situation has discouraged some property owners from making improvements, even on homes and buildings that are in major need of repairs and updates.

“People are incentivized to do nothing,” Pitts said. “We’re incentivizing them not to do anything.”

Pitts said he believes HARC can still serve an important role, but the process to approve changes to historic structures would work better if City Council made the decisions. He believes his proposal—which Pitts said he developed after reviewing city codes and bylaws—is a solution.

“My motivation was to improve a process that I felt needed improvement,” Pitts said.

Jonrowe said she hopes City Council will receive more insight from a council workshop and a city-led survey before voting on any changes to HARC.

She worries that if the commission becomes an advisory board with no decision-making power, then it could open the door to larger developments that are out of sync with historic neighborhoods, Jonrowe said.

“I’m afraid that we will see more inappropriate and overscaled projects that could start to undermine the fabric of Old Town,” she said.

Downtown activity

As stakeholders prepare for further discussion on the proposal to change HARC, new development is underway in downtown Georgetown.

Lofts on Rock, a five-story, mixed-use building at 810 Rock St., Georgetown, marked its completion Sept. 27 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

In July a two-story, 9,600-square-foot building developed by Watkins Insurance Group broke ground at 815 S. Main St., Georgetown, next door to the Grace Heritage Center. Completion is anticipated in mid-2019.

The city expects its new City Hall and municipal campus, a $13 million project dubbed Downtown West, to finish by December and be ready to open early next year. The project includes new facilities a few blocks west of the Square.

Since 2007, downtown Georgetown has seen more than $69 million in reinvestment, with close to $42 million coming from the private sector, according to the city’s most recent Texas Main Street Reinvestment Summary.

Median values in the city’s Downtown Overlay District, which encompasses about 50 blocks in the city center, increased 25.3 percent from 2013 to 2017, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of data from the Williamson Central Appraisal District.

In 2017, the median property value in the downtown district was $360,260.

Downtown Development Manager Kim McAuliffe said the city has several initiatives to encourage
reinvestment, including a city grant program for historic building facades and signage has awarded just under $460,000 since starting in 2004.

McAuliffe said there are still opportunities for new building projects on vacant pieces of land, known as infill construction to city planners, in downtown Georgetown.

“A lot of people, when they think of downtown, they think of the Square, but it’s a lot larger than the Square,” McAuliffe said. “There’s a lot more opportunity.”

NATIONAL REGISTER DISTRICTS

Georgetown has four districts listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Belford Historic District

  • Date listed: 1986
  • Location: Between Main and Rock streets, south of University Avenue
  • Architectural style examples: Bungalow/Craftsman, late-era Victorian
  • Named for Charles Belford, a prominent Georgetown homebuilder active during the early 20th century, the Belford district contains one of the highest concentrations of historic homes in the city.

Olive Street Historic District

  • Date listed: 2013
  • Location: Centered along Olive Street between Maple and Vine streets, south of University Avenue
  • Architectural style examples: Colonial Revival, Queen Anne
  • Located south of Southwestern University, the Olive Street district is characterized by tree-lined streets and a variety of architectural styles from early and more modern eras.

University Avenue-Elm Street Historic District

  • Date listed: 1979
  • Location: Between Elm and Myrtle streets, south of University Avenue
  • Architectural style examples: Eastlake, Georgian Revival, Queen Anne
  • Home preservation in the city’s smallest historic district has allowed it to retain the style and character of an affluent late 19th century neighborhood.

Williamson County Courthouse Historic District

  • Date listed: 1977
  • Location: Several blocks surrounding the downtown Square
  • Architectural style examples: Colonial Revival
  • With its heavy concentration of historic properties around the Square, the district is a prominent center to Georgetown’s historic character.

Sources: National Register of Historic Places, Texas Historical Commission/Community Impact Newspaper

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Evan Marczynski
Evan Marczynski is editor of the Georgetown edition of Community Impact Newspaper. He joined Community Impact in 2016 as a reporter in Northwest Austin and previously covered Austin-area health care and Round Rock ISD. Evan is a native of the Pacific Northwest, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Western Washington University in 2012 and worked as a newspaper reporter until he moved to Texas.
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