Saving the Good Stuff

by Tere O'Connell, AIA, PA Board President

Our survey of favorite historic music venues has reminded us once again that we have much to be thankful for in Austin.  From the neon-lit, low-ceilinged grit of the Broken Spoke to the vintage paintings and red velvet of the Continental Club, these are the places where memories are made.  We’ve also lost venues that had very high community value, like the Armadillo and Liberty Lunch.  As historian John H. Slate said in his recently published book Lost Austin, “By demolishing Austin’s historic structures and obscuring its geography, the character of Austin’s cultural heritage is lost.”  Aside from the Spoke and Continental Club, some of these treasured places may not meet landmark designation criteria, but they are part of the soul of Austin worth celebrating and experiencing as we continue to grow and mature. We’re left to ask: how do we identify, value, protect and save “the good stuff”?

Local businesses across town also provide an essential component of our community character. For example, the Corner Cafe on Lamar, formerly G&M Steakhouse and recently featured on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives, is a tiny place that sits on a prime piece of real estate.  It is packed with people every day; we all love it. Local business owners put their heart and soul into their businesses, including the preservation of the unique buildings that are part of their identity.  As we Save the Good Stuff, local businesses are some of the first places that come to mind.

The definition and interpretation of "Community Value" as a criteria for Austin landmark designation has been challenged many times since the inception of the program.  Who decides community value?  Is there a magic number or spectrum of community representation who must show up for every hearing to demonstrate this value? Is there a clear definition of quantitative value that our historic landmark and planning commissions can apply with certainty? As the City of Austin begins the process of writing a new land development code, this issue is something we need to continue to ponder, refine, and clarify, to be fair, responsible, and respectful when judging how each property affects the larger whole of Austin character.

In late February a surprisingly large turnout of people came to see the "Four Cities. Four Land Development Codes." presentation at the historic State Theater, sponsored by Imagine Austin.  As I listened to the presentation with several other Preservation Austin members, it struck me that this is a crystalline moment in Austin history.  The speakers agreed that it will take us five years to rewrite the Austin land development code, and that it may be expected to last for 40-50 years –or two generations.  Experts from Raleigh, Madison, Denver and Dallas shared their process of community engagement, definition of priorities, and approaches to various issues like form-based codes, elimination of overlays, simplification of language, protection of inner-city neighborhoods, and historic preservation. One of the speakers stressed the importance of defining a vision for Austin before we start writing the code: figure out what development works and what doesn’t, and write the code accordingly.  Zoning policies such as Raleigh’s historic district "lite" and Dallas’ use of neighborhood stabilization overlays were presented as alternative ways to preserve community character without as many regulations.  These and other methods will be worthy of scrutiny for Austin, especially as we may support integration of existing building fabric with new construction as a sustainable approach to development under certain conditions.

It is difficult to plan a comprehensive and integrated vision for historic preservation without solid, accurate, and current baseline information.  Some of pre-1936 Austin was surveyed in 1984, and some areas of East Austin were surveyed in 1980, 2000 and 2006.  The Austin Historical Survey Wiki created by the UT Historic Preservation Program is wonderful, but is not currently funded for implementation city-wide.  An updated and comprehensive historic resources survey is sorely needed in order for us to clarify and refine the definition of what is important to preserve and protect, and what sites are appropriate for new development.  This has been identified as a goal in both the Imagine Austin plan and the Downtown Austin Plan.  In addition, the Imagine Austin plan prioritizes the need for an updated Historic Preservation Plan - our current plan dates back to 1981.

The mission of Preservation Austin is to promote Austin’s diverse cultural heritage through the preservation of historic places. There are many ways that we do this, and we continue to look for more.  Stay tuned for more on the historic music venues app, a new way to recognize and celebrate our local businesses, and an opportunity to advocate for funding an updated historic resource survey.