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.
Historic Landmark Commission
Each of the 11 commissioners was nominated by an Austin City Council member:
• Mary Galindo, chair; nominated by Ora Houston
• David Whitworth, vice chair; nominated by Sheri Gallo
• Kevin Koch; nominated by Sabino “Pio” Renteria
• Terri Myers; nominated by Leslie Pool
• Tiffany Osburn; nominated by Ann Kitchen
• Arif Panju; nominated by Don Zimmerman
• Alexander Papavasiliou; nominated by Greg Casar
• Emily Reed; nominated by Kathie Tovo
• Blake Tollett; nominated by Steve Adler
• Michelle Trevino; nominated by Ellen Troxclair
• Sarah Valenzuela; nominated by Delia Garza