Apr 17, 2024 - News

Austin's preservation challenges

Illustration of a small house under a glass dome with a hammer hovering above

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Austin lags behind other major Texas cities when it comes to city staff dedicated to historic preservation efforts.

Why it matters: If old homes embody Austin's architectural and cultural history, they're also a battleground for how our city is changing.

Zoom in: The city's Historic Preservation Office is operating with a skeleton crew, with three out of six positions in the office vacant.

The big picture: The preservation office is charged with saving Austin's historic buildings and shaping "a more sustainable, equitable, and livable city in collaboration with other City departments and community partners," per the office's website.

  • A 2022 city report found that the office reviews more permits than similar departments in peer cities around the country — but that its staff tends to be slimmer.

By contrast: Per an Axios review of their city budgets, San Antonio has 22 positions in its office of historic preservation, Houston has eight and Dallas seven.

Friction point: Preservation advocates say the city is slipping when it comes to preservation amid development pressure in older neighborhoods.

  • Up until 2020, as many three city staffers were reviewing properties for potential historic protections.
  • Now there's just one.

What they're saying: "A lot of things are stacked against preserving historic properties in the city," Preservation Austin board member Travis Holler tells Axios.

  • "The sadness is that there's a lack of staff," Susan Armstrong Fisher, historic preservation co-chair of the South River City Citizens neighborhood group, tells Axios. "A handful of us are fighting as hard as we can to preserve Austin's last buildings, but it gets harder by the day."

How it works: The preservation office reviews demolition requests for homes 45 years old or older to assess whether they meet the threshold for preservation. Typically they do not.

  • Rarely, the commission initiates historic zoning for older homes if they meet certain criteria, including architectural and historic significance. Property owners can also initiate historic zoning. Tax breaks come with the designation.

By the numbers: Austin's historic preservation office generally sends 20-30 cases to the city's Historic Landmark Commission every month.

  • The office reviews the site plans and demolitions of as many 10 properties a day, as well as works on transportation issues — and code amendments, grant reviews, economic development matters, preservation funding and surveys, city preservation officer Kalan Contreras tells Axios.
  • "I don't stop much," Contreras says. "There are very disparate things to juggle."

Between the lines: Historic preservation has been a political hot potato for at least a decade as Austin increasingly emphasizes density as a path to more affordable homes.

What's next: Austin is aiming to fill two job openings in its historic preservation office with salaries of up to $40 per hour.

  • The deadline to apply is Wednesday.
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