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Austin Historic Preservation and its Effects on Commercial Development

There are many reasons to preserve old buildings. Buildings are a part of a city’s history and when one is preserved, it’s kept on public display as a reminder of a city’s past. Old buildings add value to a city by providing a sense of culture, permanence, and heritage. Sometimes, old buildings are made of rare or non-existent materials, extinct species of woods for example, which can give a building intrinsic value. And there is something special about some old buildings, depth, and character, to which many people are drawn. Destroying an old building is permanent and final, something you can’t reverse, which is why demolition should be done with thought and care.

2404 San Gabriel Street – Rendering of Proposed Development with Freemen’s Bar visible. Photo courtesy of Mark Hart Architecture / City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission

That being said, the historic designation of a building can, and does, hinder new development and, in some cases, can be argued to be an inefficient use of a limited and scarce resource: real estate. Historic preservation usually comes with added costs – both direct and opportunity costs – compared to new development.

Austin recognizes a few different historic designations that can be applied to several types of properties, including individual buildings, contiguous areas of the city, ruins, and even cemeteries. All designations do require some form of approval from a local or state committee for changes to the building, demolition, or relocation. Some designations require owners to maintain their properties in specific ways, but it is important to note that other designations have no such maintenance requirements. Also, it can be fairly easy to nominate a building for historic distinction; sometimes all that is required is for a building to be at least 40 years old. It is generally agreed that many buildings in a city are worth saving, but why designate a building historically and not require the owner to preserve it? In the worst-case scenario, this would lead to a new development surrounding an old historic building in desperate need of maintenance, such as the new student housing development going up in West campus. The plans for 2404 San Gabriel show the proposed development surrounding a historic building built in 1869 by freed slave George Franklin. The building to preserve is now a bar and BBQ joint named Freedmen’s. A recent photo shows the state of Freedmen’s and, as of this writing, there are no known plans for the renovation of Freedmen’s.

City officials report that Austin lags Texas’ other large cities like Houston, Dallas/Fort Worth, and San Antonio in regards to historic preservation initiatives. The main reasons for this, officials say, are the lack of resources allocated for historic preservation, compounded by accelerated growth of the city. “Limited resources have led to a preservation policy that reacts to the deluge of individual demolition applications rather than proactively works with the community to identify and preserve the city’s historic structures and areas”, says Cara Pertron – one of only two managers in the Austin preservation office.

Freemen’s Bar – Google Maps 2017 – Photo courtesy of Google Maps

Austin’s ever-increasing demand for real estate and an ineffective preservation review process results in a game of catch-up as the preservation office is forced to take a reactionary strategy that often fails to execute. “Since resources in Austin are limited to reacting to demolition applications, Singleton said the creation of local historic districts relies heavily on the initiative of neighborhoods. However, since the process can be arduous and extremely expensive, Singleton said lower-income neighborhoods, no matter how historic, are often excluded from participation”.

No matter your stance on the topic, one thing is clear – historic preservation affects how and where Austin grows. Case in point– Austin’s tallest proposed skyscraper, 6th X Guadalupe, whose design constraints include setbacks for the preservation of the 1858 James T. Brown house, which is part of the Bremond Block Historic District. The architect of 6th X Guadalupe was required to sacrifice a significant portion of the building’s parking podium in order to allow for the required airspace and setbacks above and around the historic home.

6 X Guadalupe proposed setbacks to accommodate James T. Brown House. Photo courtesy of Gensler

In some cases, when commercial developers face restrictions on build space due to historic landmarks, they can have their cake and eat it too. Take the example of Cielo Property Group and the ‘Hepcat’ home. Cielo is building a 160,000 SF office space on the east side, named Foundry II. Cielo ran into a snag when they found out they had to tango with a historic landmark dubbed the “Hepcat” home, which housed Albert Lavada Durst, a.k.a. Dr. Hepcat, Texas’ first black radio DJ. Cielo petitioned the Historic Landmark Commission (HLC) to allow for the donation and movement of the home to a woman a few blocks North who recently lost her home to a fire. The HLC allowed for the transplanted home as long as Cielo updated the flooring and added a fresh coat of paint. Cielo found a creative way to preserve the home, help someone going through a rough time, and push the development of Foundry II along while gaining some great press.

As long as real estate remains a scarce resource, there will be tension between preservation efforts and new development. There have been some creative solutions proposed to help relieve this tension, such as the Transference of Development Rights (TDR), in which the owner of a property has the right to sell the developable airspace above their property. In theory, the market created by TDR helps to preserve historic property while allowing for development to fill the density that a growing city requires. A TDR system was proposed to City Council back in the late aughts, but the topic was dropped in 2011 with the adoption of the “density bonus” program – part of the Downtown Austin Plan.

If we disregard preservation in the name of development, we risk losing significant pieces of history and part of the fabric that makes Austin “weird”. At the same time, if preservation regulations become too strict, the city faces unnecessary growing pains. It seems, like with many other complex systems, equilibrium and balance are required for the system to operate optimally. Hopefully, Austin finds that equilibrium.

Further reading:

Header image courtesy of the Austin History Center

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