Landmarks Program: Myths & Context

We’ve been hearing that some people perceive that Preservation Austin (PA) is only concerned about preserving tax breaks for the wealthy in West Austin. This view is microscopic and does not convey the depth and breadth of PA’s programming, and needs to be put in to perspective.

As you can read throughout this newsletter and our website, the initiatives, events, and educational programs of PA are carefully planned to represent and celebrate the history of all of Austin, not just a particular few. Take a look at our newsletter this month and check out our website to see all of the programming that Preservation Austin undertakes in this regard – from lectures, to tours, to ongoing advocacy and policy development for our city’s preservation program.

Despite these exciting programs and initiatives, Austin is facing a crisis in the court of public opinion regarding the management of the historic preservation program, and once again may soon be facing litigation over the landmark tax abatements. Contrary to information disseminated by the program’s detractors, the truth is that West Austin landmarks are one piece of a larger collection of both recognized and unrecognized treasures that add depth and character to the city we love.

A widespread perception is that most of the designated landmarks are in West Austin, one of the most affluent areas of town. If we define West Austin as the 78703 zip code, the landmarks in this area comprise 18% of all the designated landmarks. Downtown (78701) properties comprise 24% of the collection, and these are primarily in commercial use.  Hyde Park and West Campus (78705 and 78751) comprise 20% of the collection, and are primarily in residential use. South and East Austin landmarks make up 8% and 10% of the whole, respectively. The remaining landmarks are on the outskirts of town or are tax exempt. In terms of property values, downtown landmarks comprise 49% the total, while West Austin homes comprise 23%.

Limits (or caps) were placed on abatements for all residential properties, regardless of location, designated or sold after December 2004. The definition of the cap was further tightened in January 2012. These caps will continue to decrease the financial commitment to preservation of these landmarks as properties sell, yet the requirements for maintenance and restrictions to development will remain unchanged. Landmark abatements comprised 0.19% of general revenue or 0.047% of the City’s overall budget in 2010-2011, demonstrating a reasoned commitment to preserve landmarks throughout our City. But this investment in preservation is just one important piece of a larger puzzle.

Community leaders and planners have acknowledged the value of our historic building stock for more than 30 years.  After losing numerous beautiful homes, churches, and commercial buildings to demolition in the late 1960s and early 1970s, preservation of historic properties has been identified as a top priority in the Downtown Austin Plan (2010), Imagine Austin (2011), and older planning documents such as the Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan (1980) and the Austin Historic Preservation Plan (1981). In fact, it was the Austin Historic Preservation Plan that said "The Historic Landmark Commission has been highly effective in designating a large number of the most significant 19th century buildings in Austin as landmarks.

At the same time the Commission has taken a narrow view of its charge, concerning itself overwhelmingly with 19th century structures and never with districts. Such an approach has limited the long term effectiveness of the program by leaving important aspects of the city's heritage exposed and by creating a false impression of the scope and potential of historic preservation.

Part of the plan’s primary recommendation was to begin creating Local Historic Districts as a vehicle for representing and interpreting all of Austin's history, beyond landmarks. Unfortunately, no provisions were made for districts until 2004, when a stringent enabling ordinance was created. Designation of individual landmarks continued through 2011 as the principal means of saving our historic fabric, and the average period of a historic landmark is from the 1910s.

By ordinance, private citizens bear the responsibility for survey, historic research, and even writing the design standards for proposed Local Historic Districts. On top of that, these volunteers are tasked with proving majority affected property owner support before the Landmark Commission will consider the nomination. Since 2004, only three districts have succeeded in finalizing a nomination and receiving Local Historic District designation. 

One of the greatest challenges for preservation in Austin is change in the character and extent of historic resources that comes with every demolition. The concentrations and integrity of potential historic resources are largely undocumented at this juncture, and central neighborhoods and our downtown core are under constant pressure to redevelop.

The Downtown Austin Plan and Imagine Austin Plan both include recommendations to update historic resource surveys, yet funding for this long overdue survey has not been secured. Further, the historic preservation plan for the City has not been updated since 1981. We need these holistic planning efforts to move forward with a strong, deliberate, and proactive program that will benefit the City as a whole.

Preservation Austin will continue to focus our efforts on achieving these goals, and thank your membership for its ongoing support for this vital work.

- By Tere O'Connell, Preservation Austin Board President