One of my favorite pastimes is researching Austin’s history. The word ‘historic’ is used casually in conversation, but until recently I didn’t fully grasp the differences in the official designations that the City of Austin and the State of Texas use to qualify a property as historic. At the recent Downtown Austin Plan town hall, ROMA provided a quality presentation that made the differences salient.
Historic districts contribute to a city’s personality. Since much of Austin’s history is contained within the boundaries of downtown, we’re devoting extra attention to this part of the Downtown Austin Plan. Of course, there is an important philosophic and economic debate whenever a property is being scrutinized and potentially limited in what can be done with it – as historic determination does. Some very smart and engaged stakeholders disagree on how to approach growth in downtown Austin, as evidenced in the discussion surrounding the Warehouse District. It is possible and necessary to encourage vertical growth in downtown Austin. But, I believe we can accomplish that growth while protecting districts which are established and culturally significant.
The last survey of of buildings which could be labeled as “culturally significant” was delivered in 1984. 25 years ago! That Cultural Resource Survey only looked at buildings at least 50 years old (in 1985). You might be surprised to know that the Travis County Courthouse was not included because it was too young at the time.
The Heritage Society of Austin is the private-sector advocacy group that seeks to “ensure the preservation of our diverse community’s architectural and cultural past for present and future generations.” The need for a new survey was vocalized at the town hall and, clearly, we are over due.
Now, onto the differences in establishing historic districts. (DAB community, please fill in the gaps if I’m leaving something out, and thank you in advance)
National Register Historic Districts (NRHDs)
-Designated by Texas Historical Commission, National Parks Service
-Listed in the National Register of Historic Places
-Receive extra consideration before any federal projects, such as highway construction
-Promote public awareness of the special character of Austin
-Eligible rehab projects may achieve preservation tax credits, if income producing properties
–No prohibition against demolition or relocation of structures in district
-Building, demolition and relocation permits are reviewed by Historic Landmark Commission
When someone claims “6th Street is historic”, this is what makes it so – it’s an NRHD. Congress Avenue, Rainey Street, and the Bremond Block make up the set of downtown Austin NRHDs.
Local Historic Districts (LHDs)
-Reviewed by the City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission
-Designated and zoned by City of Austin, with 51% owners’ agreement
-Required design standards for preservation of historic buildings and for new construction and alteration of exterior and existing buildings
-Property tax incentive available for rehab of historic buildings
-Provides higher bar for demolition or relocation of contributing buildings
LHDs are more effective than NRHDs at protecting the character of the district. ROMA is looking at E. 6th Street, E 3rd Street @ Red River (Waterloo Compound), W 6th Commercial blocks, and the Warehouse District as potential LHDs.
You can download a complete copy of ROMA’s town hall presentation here. (pdf, 29MB).