You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

No-shows, ‘no’ votes hindering action at Austin’s landmark commission


Highlights

The city sees an average of 50 demolition permit requests a month for potentially historic structures.

As the commission tries to get a quorum, some structures face destruction before historic value is assessed.

Critics of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission say the panel has been paralyzed by a lack of attendance by its members and by ideological divisions — and city officials are taking note.

East Austin resident and historian Fred McGhee believes the commission has “subverted its purpose” by failing to proactively identify and initiate historic preservation through zoning recommendations and landmark designations. Instead, he says, most of the commission’s work is about deciding whether to block demolition permit requests for potentially historic structures.

“The city has institutionalized the practice of doing historic preservation by demolition permits, which is the exact opposite of how it’s supposed to be,” McGhee said. “By the time you get to the demolition permit, it’s basically too late to have a conversation about historic preservation.”

From the day a demolition permit request is submitted, the commission has a 75-day window to consider protecting a structure before the request is approved by default. When a landowner opposes historic preservation of their property, a supermajority — eight of the 11 commissioners — must agree to protect the structure or site.

However, the commission has recently struggled to get eight members to show up at the monthly meetings. From Aug. 22 to Nov. 21, a supermajority failed to convene, which prevented action on several demolition cases, including the 84-year-old Palma Plaza Apartment House in Old West Austin earlier this year.

“You know it’s just hard, especially around the holidays, to get people to work around everyone’s vacations,” Commission Chair Mary Jo Galindo said.

She said the city’s Historic Preservation Office sees an average of 50 demolition permit requests a month for potentially historic structures. The commission’s struggle to assemble a quorum for a permit vote means a structure could face demolition before the panel ever has a chance to review its historic value.

McGhee said he would prefer to see “a properly staffed historic preservation department with qualified professionals who work independently of the city’s real estate permitting process.”

Galindo agreed and said the commission is doing its best with members who are essentially volunteers with full-time jobs. She also noted that the Historic Preservation Office has only two paid employees. Without more resources, the commission and staff can’t do the research needed to initiate historic zoning on their own, Galindo said.

“If you look at the increasing rate of demolition requests, there’s just no way,” Galindo said. “What we’re doing at this point is just triage.”

Galindo points to other cities, such as San Antonio, which have a larger staff and do research for historic designation in-house.

“They don’t push it off on the neighborhoods to do it. It’s a whole different approach,” she said. “In a perfect world, sure, we would be a lot more like San Antonio because that’s a great model.”

Differing philosophies on what the government’s role should be in historic preservation also has hobbled the commission, Galindo said.

“There’s several folks on the commission that are not preservation professionals, and when they show up and the preservation professionals do not, it’s very hard to accomplish anything,” she said. “There’s some people that just don’t really have preservation at heart when they’re listening to the deliberations. And there’s one in particular member that probably would never vote for anything for historic designation.”

Galindo said she was referring to Arif Panju, the sole vote blocking the historic preservation of the former Montopolis Negro School, one of the last artifacts of segregated education in Travis County.

Seven commissioners agreed that the structure was a cultural and historical landmark at a Nov. 28 meeting, which had to be called after three months of meetings at which not enough commissioners showed up for a vote.

Although eight commissioners were present, Panju’s lone vote of dissent was enough to block the preservation effort. The property’s owner, Austin Stowell, has said he plans to relocate and repurpose the building. However, he went forward with obtaining the demolition permit and is now within his legal rights to raze it.

Panju said that, on principle, he opposes the “historic activists” on the commission. He said he agrees with incentivizing voluntary preservation but opposes forcibly imposing historic rezoning against a property owner’s wishes.

“What they’re trying to do is use their powers against the property owners’ wishes, to use designations to stop development,” Panju said. “That is not what the Historic Landmark Commission should be doing at all.”

Mayor Steve Adler said the commission’s limited activity has spurred discussion among some council members about ways to increase its productivity and hold commissioners more accountable for attendance.

Adler said one of the options the council might consider is to require a supermajority of only the members present at a given meeting instead of a supermajority of the entire commission, to take an action on demolition permit cases where the property owner is opposed to preservation, so long as thereare at least six members present.

“There are lots of different kinds of options that are being discussed to do that,” he said. “But we have to do something.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated from a previous version that mischaracterized Austin Historic Landmark Commission member Arif Panju’s stance on historic preservation.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

How Trump's tax plan could affect you
How Trump's tax plan could affect you

 The White House unveiled a broad outline Wednesday for a dramatically simpler tax code that could lead to lower tax bills for many ordinary taxpayers but also eliminate many of the tax deductions that Americans currently claim.   President Trump's plan, which did not include many details, could cut taxes for some middle and high-income...
House Republicans look to Trump to fund Obamacare subsidies
House Republicans look to Trump to fund Obamacare subsidies

  Now that House Republicans are officially refusing to fund extra Obamacare subsidies, they're looking to the Trump administration to make the payments — despite having sued the Obama administration for doing just that.   House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., confirmed Wednesday morning that funding for the subsidies, which...
Fox News’ latest headache: Jesse Watters denies his Ivanka Trump comment was lewd
Fox News’ latest headache: Jesse Watters denies his Ivanka Trump comment was lewd

 Jesse Watters, the Bill O’Reilly protégé who recently moved to the 9 p.m. slot on Fox News as a host of the “The Five,” made a comment Tuesday that critics saw as a lewd joke directed at Ivanka Trump.   Responding to footage of Trump being jeered on stage in Berlin while speaking on a panel about female...
Treasury secretary says Trump 'has no intention' of releasing tax returns
Treasury secretary says Trump 'has no intention' of releasing tax returns

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday that President Donald Trump "has no intention" of releasing his tax returns, which would show the public how much he would benefit personally from the administration's plan to overhaul the tax code.   At a White House news conference to roll out the administration's tax cut proposal...
Winners and losers in the Trump tax plan 
Winners and losers in the Trump tax plan 

The tax plan the Trump administration released Wednesday consists (so far) of a single page of bullet points.   If this were a more rounded plan, we could wait for the tax wonks at various think tanks to run it through their models and tell with some precision how it would affect people at different income levels and who would benefit from...
More Stories