Historically and culturally significant neighborhoods, such as Independence Heights—settled by Black people in the 1900s as the first African American municipality in Texas—are the sites of recent change and a loss of character, according officials with the city of Houston's planning department.

Now, the city is pushing for the preservation of these neighborhoods through a proposed conservation district ordinance.

Houston City Council hosted a public hearing Feb. 22 to discuss the ordinance, which would enable neighborhoods to choose from a menu of standards for lot exteriors and apply for conservation district status. A conservation district differs from a historic district, an option already available to city residents that has a fixed set of standards.

A draft ordinance released Feb. 13 requires neighborhoods that apply to get approval from 51% of property owners to become a conservation district. Public hearings would then ensue before a conservation district is approved.

Beginning in 2020, Houston's Planning & Development Department conducted a series of focus groups regarding conservation districts. Despite this, residents—including public speakers at the Feb. 22 hearing—expressed concerns over the process feeling rushed.

“One of the things we are asking for today is more time to engage with civic staff,” said John Rentz, president of the Houston Real Estate Council.

At-large Council Member Michael Kubosh said the proposed ordinance feels like zoning.

Several council members expressed confusion over the differences between a conservation district and a historic district as well as how the proposed ordinance would interact with deed restrictions. Deed restrictions would always take precedence over the potential ordinance, said Margaret Wallace Brown, director of the planning department.

At several points during the hearing, Mayor Sylvester Turner reigned in tangents, making a point to talk about the draft ordinance’s potential to benefit areas such as Independence Heights, where conversations about conservation districts have been ongoing since 2012, according to District H Council Member Karla Cisneros. Other areas where conservation districts could be proposed include Acres Homes, Freedmen’s Town and Piney Point.

“These are communities that have represented, in large part, historically disenfranchised communities,” Turner said. “These communities are being gentrified. They are being wiped out.”

Roman McAllen, an officer with the Houston Office of Preservation, also presented the draft ordinance to the city's Super Neighborhood Alliance on Feb. 13 and to its Livable Places Action Committee on Feb. 21.

Wallace Brown said she will also be speaking at the Super Neighborhood Alliance’s March 13 meeting to discuss conservation districts in greater detail.

A timeline for when the item may come back to City Council was not immediately clear.