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

Tuesday July 19th, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Austin’s Office of Historic Preservation has embarked on a new project to address equity issues, with ambitions to revise the city’s preservation plan for the first time since 1981.

In a briefing at the Historic Landmarks Commission, staff said the equity-based historic preservation plan is halfway through its two-year development period. To complete its second phase, the team is applying for $300,000 in funding from city council.

The new plan will formalize a number of policy guidelines to address the biases implicit in the historic zoning process that exclude marginalized communities. He will also address the challenges posed by Austin’s rapid growth, offering economic incentive policies that staff members hope can standardize on the speculative real estate market.

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

Discriminatory zoning practices date back nearly a century, with the 1928 city master planthe delineation of a black neighborhood that would continue to suffer from decades of severe underfunding. Between their exclusion from the housing market via redlining and the subjection to industrial zoning and urban renewal projects, many black and Latino communities have been denied the financial security needed to put down roots. Sometimes the move was quite literal, as in the case of Interstate 35 and the MoPac freeway, both of which destroyed large swaths of historic neighborhoods to accommodate the growth in traffic.

Critics have noted that the criteria for designating landmarks reinforces this historical pattern, excluding marginalized communities from the historical zoning protections granted to their whiter, wealthier neighbors. Inspired by 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 other hurdles, making it difficult for working-class communities to participate in preservation decisions.

The growing number of demolition requests investors in Austin’s booming real estate market poses other problems. In combination with the city’s late foray into local historic district protections (there is currently 8unlike Houston’s 19 and San Antonio’s 32), preservation staff and historical commissioners repeatedly find themselves unequipped to protect endangered histories.

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

In addition to city staff and members of the Historic Landmarks Commission, the task force includes 26 community members who received $25 an hour in compensation funded by a grant from the Texas Historical Commission. After a year of solution workshops, the team aims to write a proposal of over 100 recommendations by September.

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

After review by the Historic Landmarks Commission, the project will enter a year-long phase of community outreach and refinement, with a final product before City Council scheduled for fall 2023. If approved, the $300,000 of the budget funds requested will go primarily to the remuneration of project management staff. , including 12 ambassador positions responsible for leading community engagement.

“I think for a very long time we’ve been rightly criticized for putting too much emphasis on a bunch of fancy buildings…and I’m really looking forward to it because we desperately need some new tools,” said said Commissioner Ben Heimsath. “But that budget doesn’t pass on its own…phase two awaits, but so does the need for continued investment.”

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

Photo made available via a Creative Commons license.

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