Some Thoughts on the Audit of Austin’s Historic Preservation Program

Thanks to my long-suffering and loving wife and children I was able to attend yesterday’s Austin City Council Audit and Finance Committee hearing.  The centerpiece of the meeting was the presentation of the city auditor’s most recent audit of the historic preservation department.

Jo Clifton of the Austin Monitor also attended the meeting and filed this report.  The official website of the Austin City Auditor can be found here.

Ms. Clifton could and perhaps should have interviewed me, particularly since I not only have appeared before the Historic Landmark Commission on many occasions over the years, particularly concerning Rosewood Courts and the Montopolis Negro School—two rather controversial cases—but also because I am one of the city’s leading historic preservation professionals, with decades of experience.  But I digress; my main desire in this blog post is to talk about how to improve the city’s management of historic properties, not necessarily to critique the Austin Monitor’s biased reporting.  That said, I do feel compelled to say one thing about the story.  In a paragraph nearly half-way through her story Clifton observes:

In addition, the audit said that some members of the Historic Landmark Commission lack the training they need to make well-informed decisions. As a result of the November election, the commission has two new members who replaced members considered opposed to historic preservation in general, and the city’s programs in particular. So, it is not clear whether the problem was really about lack of education in those two instances.

Clifton is incorrect; it is clear.  Neither Arif Panju nor David Whitworth met (or meet) the Secretary of the Interior’s qualifications guidelines in the field of historic preservation.  Mr. Panju is a “constitutional lawyer,” a term probably made most popular by former President Barack Obama, but hardly a profession, and certainly not one meeting the practical field experience requirements expected of most historic preservation professionals.  As for Mr. Whitworth, as Sheri Gallo’s appointee it was always clear what interest he truly represented:  minimally regulated real estate development.  He does not meet the guidelines either, neither in terms of education nor experience.

As the audit notes, Austin’s professional guidelines for service on the Historic Landmark Commission are not mandatory, but advisory only.  This is an exception to standard practice in other cities, one that should be remedied.

Clifton’s report also addresses the audit finding that the department is understaffed, both in real and absolute terms in comparison to peer cities.  That too needs fixing, but even a fully staffed department won’t fix what’s fundamentally wrong, in my opinion.  In the end the problems are political, not administrative.
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We can haggle about the details, but any true fix of Austin’s historic preservation department must do the following:

  1.  Properly staff the department with historians, architects, archaeologists and support personnel.  The audit strongly suggests that 4 people isn’t enough; a minimum of 8-10 is better and in keeping with best practice.
  2.  Increase the department’s non-personnel budget substantially.  My initial recommendation is $2-5 million dollars.  Having enough people isn’t enough.  They need to have the tools in order to do their job.  Once that’s done, they need to be respected as the highly qualified professionals they are.
  3. The city must make it clear that it follows the National Register criteria.  It should also make clear to non-specialists what those criteria are and how they are professionally applied.  If the city chooses to follow another standard, it should develop it, properly vet it, and make it public.
  4.  Most importantly, the city’s historic preservation officer must report directly to the city manager, by-passing the chain of command at the department of planning and zoning.  Anyone with common sense knows why this was done in the first place, and whose interests it serves.

The landmarking criteria themselves should not need much revision, if any.  Historic preservation judgments are ultimately subjective, but this is not to say that these are endlessly contingent; it takes skills and the ability to evaluate empirical evidence to document and reach conclusions about historic properties.  In Austin’s case, judgments about community value are ultimately political judgments.  City councillors are elected to make such decisions.

In order for members of the city council to reach proper conclusions they should be furnished with sound information reflecting the best professional competencies of city officials.  Unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in the leadership of the Planning and Zoning department should not be in a bureaucratic position to thwart or frustrate what should be fact and standards based historic preservation discussions and debates.