Historic Preservation in Austin—Some Initial Thoughts

Most local observers understand that the way Austin does historic preservation—actually how it does not do historic preservation—is in need of a significant upgrade.  The city has simply grown too large for the small town approach pioneered by the late Betty Baker in the mid 1970’s.  At it’s Thursday, January 26, 2017 meeting Austin’s city council voted to enact a small but important change to how the city’s Historic Landmark Commission can vote to enact the historic zoning of a property.  Earlier that week I sent an email to the city council and various staffers in support of making the change.  I reproduce that email below:

Dear Mayor and Austin City Council,

I am writing to respectfully request that you support the resolution appearing as Item #46 at tomorrow’s city council meeting.  Councilmember Tovo’s resolution is a step in the right direction and deserves your support.  I am delighted that the resolution has garnered so many co-sponsors.

As one of the first African-Americans to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology, and as the president of the only African-American and Disabled Veteran owned and operated archaeological consulting company in the United States, I am well acquainted with our city’s historic preservation regulations and practices, as well as the state and federal laws from which they tier.  I have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on numerous occasions over the years, especially over the past 5 years, mainly in a pro-bono capacity.  As you are probably aware, I am one of our city’s leading African-American historic preservation advocates.

Our city’s historic preservation program badly needs top-to-bottom reform, and a plurality of the current Historic Landmark Commission membership, including the current chairwoman, agree.  As background, if you have not yet read it, this December 18, 2016 article in the Austin American-Statesman documents that the year 2016 was not a good year for this commission.

Setting aside the larger issue of proper reform for another day, I ask that you keep your focus on what Councilmember Tovo’s resolution actually does and avoid the tendency to engage in casuistry.  This resolution is not about the Historic Landmark Commission’s inability to hold meetings due to a lack of quorum; it is specifically focused on the existence of a unique and unfair disparate standard requiring a supermajority of votes in order to achieve an affirmative vote.  Such a prejudicial requirement is unique to this commission and is undemocratic and should be terminated.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Austin City Council, I hope you agree that it is unnecessary as well as unwise to wantonly destroy our city’s cultural heritage in order to satisfy our city’s economic development objectives.  Please think deeply about this matter and familiarize yourself with examples from other U.S. and international cities regarding this issue.  As always, I stand ready to assist if asked.

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Now that Councilmember Tovo’s resolution has passed (9-2 in favor with Councilmembers Troxclair and Garza voting against), I offer the following intial thoughts as food for discussion going forward.

  1.  The Historic Landmark Commission’s zoning vote regarding the Montopolis Negro School was 7-1 in favor of historic zoning.  But had that vote passed, I would have opposed it afterward.  Here’s why:  the zoning resolution sponsored by Commissioner Terri Myers was a “compromise” that not only ignored the property’s historical significance as a cultural landscape—something that the National Register rules the city claims to follow require analyzing and making recommendations about—it would have allowed the property’s current owner, real estate developer Austin Stovell, to move the building from its original location, thereby deliberately destroying the historic integrity of the historical site.  The commission should not be in the business of making half-cocked and ad hoc decisions based upon deliberately incomplete information.
  2. This Historic Landmark Commission has many other problems.  One noteworthy problem is this:  unqualified people serving on the commission.  The city’s rules recommend, but do not require, that the people serving on this commission at a minimum meet the minimum professional guidelines specified by the Secretary of the Interior.  Arif Panju, the most divisive commissioner, at least met the requirement of being a lawyer, but what were commissioner David Whitworth’s credentials in the field of historic preservation?  The effort to stack this commission with real estate agents and developers was and remains a problem.
  3. As I have been saying now for years, the city’s historic preservation officer should be a stand-alone position that reports directly to the city manager.  That’s how San Antonio does it, as well as other cities.  The placement of this position inside the Planning and Zoning department is a deliberate effort on the part of Austin’s always-ruling real estate clique to unfairly stack the deck in their favor.

There are many other things that need to change, including the proper staffing of the department as well as other challenges, such as an almost complete lack of focus on archaeological sites located on public as well as private land.  The City of Austin cares more about heritage trees, and taxpayers fund several arborists on the city payroll, but to date the city has never funded a staff archaeologist.

To get a sense of how other cities do it better, take a look at the historic preservation departments for the cities of San Antonio (notice that a member of the city’s code enforcement department focuses exclusively on historic buildings), Seattle (Seattle has a “Department of Neighborhoods” that manages community involvement far more effectively than Austin’s silly “Contact Team” idea), and Boston (the City of Boston leverages its many local universities and sponsors archaeological digs at sites such as the historic Malcolm X House).