Texas House Committee Tries to Tweak Historic Preservation Law Due to Alleged Abuses in Austin
Feature Photo (above): The 60-year-old David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in East Austin has become a case study in the Texas Legislature for how not to do a historic landmark designation. Image: Google Streets.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Austin (Travis County) — When it comes to regulating the demolition of old buildings in the state capital, this would be an appropriate time to paraphrase astronaut Jack Swigert and say, “Austin, we have a problem.”
A week ago, Preservation Texas issued an “advocacy alert” to its members and historic building preservationists in general over House Bill 2496, claiming it was drafted “without any input whatsoever from the historic preservation community.” The bill as originally drafted would require a property owner’s consent before a structure put through local government review can be designated historically significant.
Preservation Texas said that “in those very rare occasions when local governments seek to designate a building as a historic landmark over the objection of the property owner, it is because the property owner wants to bulldoze the building, and the city wants to save an important and irreplaceable landmark for future generations.”
The nonprofit organization claimed the bill, if passed into law, would make it impossible to create coherent local historic districts and called it “a clumsy legislative solution to a problem that simply does not exist.” Preservationist activists were called upon to voice their opposition at a House committee hearing on the bill.
The hearing took place Tuesday and preservationists from Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Dallas gave their reasons for why the bill should be withdrawn.
San Antonio resident Cynthia Spielman, president of an inner city neighborhood association and blogger, said that in her extensive work on historic district development she found that one place where conservatives and progressives intersect is in the preserving of legacy neighborhoods and in the protection of vulnerable communities.
“When a developer or business wants to demolish a legacy home, the community can ask the Office of Historic Preservation in San Antonio to determine its significance. That’s not a lot to ask. A historic designation is not automatic. It’s a review that goes through a process … this review is the only tool we have in a system stacked towards developers,” Spielman said.
San Antonio and many other Texas cities are challenged by the loss of affordable housing that occurs when investors buy up large numbers of aging houses for the purpose of knocking them down to change zoning to higher density to construct market rate multifamily or townhome developments.
Dallas architect Norman Alston, a specialist in adaptive reuse of historic buildings, said the state law in present form has led to overwhelming success. Local programs stabilize and pull neighborhoods together. Alston claimed, as did other preservationists, that the great majority of local appointed officials that review historic designation requests are level-headed people that act in the best interest of the affected neighborhoods.
There appears to be a glaring exception to that claim and the fingers are pointing at Austin, which is why this bill got filed in the first place. And this isn’t the first time.
In 2017, lobbyist and former lawmaker Burt Solomons convinced state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, to file a bill limiting local government authority to make historical designations by requiring more rigorous findings on what makes it significant. Solomons was motivated to act because of the reaction of neighbors when he sought a demolition permit for a 1910 house; their rational for lobbying the city to designate the house as historic was the fact that the former resident, a prominent philanthropist, used to throw lavish parties there.
Elkins’ bill died in committee but it drew statewide attention about how things are done in Austin.
“Austin is not a great example of a well-managed preservation program. The rest of the state should not have to pay the price for those very bad examples,” Preservation Texas’ director Evan Thompson told Texas Tribune in a 2017 interview.
At Tuesday’s hearing, supporters of the bill offered some clarity on why the rest of the state might still pay for what happens in Austin.
Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, filed HB 2496 and upon introducing it for the hearing offered a substitute that included a local override loophole. Cyrier said the substitute revision in the Culture, Recreation & Tourism Committee would allow a historic or planning or zoning commission to override a property owner’s object, but only by a three-fourths super majority vote of the commissioners.
Glen Coleman, lobbyist. Courtesy: South Llano Strategies.
On that note, Austin lobbyist Glen Coleman of South Llano Strategies, said he represented developers that had an interest in affordable housing. He then offered his version of why Austin was driving this bill.
When Coleman starts the process for a demolition permit it takes 30 days to get on the Historic Landmark Commission agenda. The makeup of the commission is all “wealthy, older Anglos, every single one of them … they’re all single family homeowners, mostly from the west side of our city.”
Coleman said that on occasion his staff will find during the course of their research that the structure is historically significant and he’ll inform the client he won’t represent them. But nine times out of ten, the rationale given by the commission for a historically significant finding “is rubbish; it is a group of people who are using our statutes to control other people’s ability to control their property.”
After the Historic Landmark Commission is done with a case it goes to the Planning Commission, but at both stages there are delays that lead to second and even third hearings.
“By the time the developer has been drug through eight or nine months of paying the bank to hold the property, my odds of getting to him or her for some affordable housing or some workforce housing–it’s gone! They are not as progressive as they were when we started this process. So it is hurting the communities that are most vulnerable,” Coleman said.
Coleman underlined Austin as an outlier in Texas.
“In San Antonio, we don’t have this problem. History is big business in San Antonio. They have those commissions staffed with people who know what they’re doing. I often call the City of San Antonio and ask for advice because I can’t get it from my local commission.
“Galveston, not a problem. Fredericksburg, small town, not a problem. Kyle and Junction know what they’re doing and their planning commissions are pretty sober,” he said.
Coleman supported the Cyrier’s substitute, reasoning that if these review panels could see they would not be able to assemble a super majority vote, there would be fewer delays.
Arif Panju, civil rights attorney and former Austin Historic Landmark Commission member.
Arif Panju, managing attorney at Institute for Justice, offered his perspective as a former commissioner of the Historic Landmark Commission.
“Think of it this way,” Panju said. “The process is the punishment. Most of the issues that arise and what this bill addresses is the abuse of historic landmarking ordinances to control people and to wear them down so they give up their plans for their home.
Joseph C. Parker Jr., an Austin attorney and senior pastor at David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, said he was in his 27th year as pastor of the East Austin congregation, “and almost from the very beginning I’ve had historical preservationists in the city approach me.”
David Chapel is a 60-year-old building that has been a target of preservationist for decades. In 2016, City Council passed a resolution requiring a hearing on historic landmark designation that included churches of African-Americans. Parker said the resolution was spurred by the demolition of another African-American church, but David Chapel is in poor condition, expensive to maintain and too small for the congregation’s needs.
Joseph C. Parker Jr., senior pastor, David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.
They have been wanting to sell it and build a new temple elsewhere, but that won’t be possible unless they’re able to sell it.
“The forced historic designation would trap David Chapel and other similarly situated houses of worship in an area where earlier formal and informal segregation laws forced this building to be built in the first place. Ironically, the city’s action would preserve that historic injustice,” Parker said.
Committee member and co-author on Cyrier’s bill Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, parried several times with preservationists, suggesting by her questions that their constituencies were biased toward a preference for gentrification that benefited the upper class.
She asked Parker if he would be willing to participate in a conversation with the preservationists, “because I’m a believer in how we create the win-win.”
“But we’re going to put on the record that there are many communities who look like us that are hurting and suffering because of what is happening with preservation.”
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.