The Austin City Council on Thursday ordered a review of rules on granting historic landmark status to homes — and the tax breaks that come with that designation — amid concerns from some council members that a rush of new historic zoning cases could undermine the city's tax base.
On Thursday, the council heard 25 requests for historic status, most from the Pemberton Heights neighborhood, just northwest of downtown.
That amounted to more historic cases than the council usually considers in a year, Council Member Bill Spelman said.
The council gave preliminary approval to the requests but delayed a final vote until next week. The council also directed city staffers to look into possibly limiting the number of historic designations per neighborhood, or citywide.
"I think we have a major equity issue if all our cases are concentrated in a specific area" of West or Central Austin, Council Member Sheryl Cole said.
There are now about 440 buildings for which the city has granted historic status, city planning manager Jerry Rusthoven said. To qualify as historic, a home must be at least 50 years old and must have retained its historical appearance, among other requirements.
The city taxes on a historic home are either capped at $2,000 or are levied as if the home is worth 50 percent of its taxable value, whichever is higher, Rusthoven told the council.
In exchange, the owner of a historic house may make only minimal changes to it.
With the 25 pending cases, along with three more cases to be considered at next week's meeting and 20 cases already approved this year, the city would lose $115,300 from the tax rolls.
The school district, county and other jurisdictions would lose taxes as well, Rusthoven said.
The solution is not to limit the number of designations per neighborhood. If a neighborhood is chock full of historic homes, we might was to preserve more of the neighborhood rather than less. (There is actually a separate zoning district for this.)
No, the solution is to enforce the ordinance on the books; i.e., require the structure to have "architectural, historical, archaeological, or cultural significance." A house is not "significant" merely because the owners made no major changes to the house over the years. (Some of the houses on the list don't even pass this watered-down test because the owners have added garages or another wing.)
The article makes another important point. The city's decisions spill over to the county and school district. They, in fact, bear the brunt of an historic landmark designation. Designating Pemberton Heights' "Huron Mills House" as historic will cost the city $5,000 per year -- capped -- but the county and AISD $29,000 per year. (The Huron Mills House is historically significant because it was the home of the proprietor of Austin's first cash-only building materials business. Oh, and it is an excellent example of Colonial Revival residential architecture (as is every third house in Pemberton Heights).) The city naturally would designate fewer buildings "historic" if it had to bear the full cost of the designations.
While scanning today's City Council agenda, I was struck by the number of applications for historic landmark designation. Twenty-five of the 93 agenda items, to be exact.
According to City code, the purpose of a historic landmark designation "is to protect, enhance, and preserve individual structures or sites that are of architectural, historical, archaeological, or cultural significance." It is not a synonym for "old." And it shouldn't be: the owners of historic landmarks get generous tax breaks. A historic designation, in other words, is a straight cash transaction; the owners get cash, we taxpayers get preservation. So we should try to get our money's worth. That ought to mean, at a minum, that we give two snaps about the structure we are paying to preserve.
Most of these don't rate one snap. Here is a sampling of the items on today's shopping list:
For $10,325 in annual tax abatements, we are buying the preservation of Pemberton Heights' ca. 1938 "Lolla Peterson House." (Step one in any landmark designation application is to name the house.) The staff report gives this summary of its reason for recommending historic landmark status:
The house is a good example of a Tudor Revival-syle stone cottage and is associated with Lolla Paterson, who headed the Travis County Welfare Department for many years, and was known for her kindness and treatment of the needy.
Mind you, the historic structure was not actually built for Ms. Peterson; she did not move in until 1957.
For $11,777, we are buying the preservation of Old West Austin's "Sutton-Bailey House." This 1938 house "is an excellent example of severe Colonial Revival architecture" and is associated with William S. Sutton, a leader in the field of education and Dean of the College of Education at UT. Mr. Sutton, unfortunately, died before the historic structure he imbued with significance could be built, but it was occupied by his wife and daughter ten years after he died. Sort of a "one degree of separation" test of historic significance.
For $5,359 in annual tax abatements, we are buying the preservation of the ca. 1924 home of Madison Benson, a "pioneer automobile dealer in Austin." The home was also "associated" with Godfrey Flury, who was responsible for the painted interior of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Praha (wherever that is) and who then established an "outdoor advertising business in Austin" (i.e., billboards). (Like Ms. Peterson, Mr. Flury never actually lived in the house; his widow bought the house 10 years after he died.)
Come on. Who will get a special tingle from viewing the home of the proprietor of Austin's first cash-only building materials business ($34,772 in annual tax abatements). Or the home of an oilman whose wife was "prominent in Austin social circles" and a charter member of the Junior League (and whose historically significant home was built in 1947) ($28,381 per annum). Or the home of the proprietor of one of the city's "leading women's clothing stores" ($17,841) or of prominent clothing store owners who were leaders in the city's Jewish community ($15,058) or of a "prominent insurance man" ($12,627).
Staff recommended the historic landmark designation in each of these cases. I'm frankly surprised they could do it with a straight face. I'm surprised at the Planning Commission and Council's willing complicity. The only significance of most of these homes is that they lie in tony Pemberton Heights or Old Enfield and in many cases are appraised at well over $1 million. The historic landmark ordinance has somehow been contorted into a tax-break scheme for the members of Austin's upper middle class smart enough to work the system. Who can blame them for asking? But I don't see why those of us relegated to less prestigious neighborhoods should stand for it.
You can access the staff reports from the City Council agenda page. They are items 60-84.