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Houston Archeological and Historic Commission

Revisiting the historic preservation ordinance

This sort of thing is always fun.

Houstonians who live in historic districts, including the Old Sixth Ward, the Heights and the High First Ward, weighed in this week on proposed updates to the city’s rules that create areas preserved from most demolition and new construction, agreeing with some proposed changes, pointing out loopholes for unwanted development and taking the opportunity to complain about the current process.

The proposed revisions to the historic ordinance, which would enable creation of a process to create and manage historic districts, were presented in summary at a public hearing Wednesday night. The meeting was part of the efforts of the Planning and Development Department and the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission to refine the ordinance.

[…]

The ordinance, updated in 2010, created permanent protections for historic structures in the 22 designated districts and established a process for creating a district. The proposed changes strive to streamline approvals for requested changes within a district, provide guidance to the commission and create a more efficient process.

Many of those issues came to light Wednesday, even as it was acknowledged that historic districts are some of the strongest land-use laws Houston offers to property owners. A large contingency showed up from the Old Sixth Ward, one of the oldest districts. The neighborhood is near downtown, with houses dating back to the 1800s.

Resident Jane West asked the panel to consider how new construction is monitored in historic districts. She cited an instance in which a noncontributing structure was demolished but then replaced with a building that was larger than what was there before.

“We want to make sure the districts are a shield for neighborhoods, not a sword for developers,” West said.

Others from various districts in Montrose, the Heights and First Ward complained of the vague design requirements, the lack of term limits on the historic commission panel and the seemingly arbitrary process for approvals.

See here for the last update. All things considered, this has been fairly low-key. People can get mighty exercised about this, but at least by this story it sounds more like grumbling than outrage. I suppose that could change when the HAHC presents its recommendations at the next meeting, on August 5. But for now, this seems manageable.

Meanwhile, in other preservation news:

The Heights Theatre anchors a strip of vintage buildings converted into restaurants and small shops on buzzing 19th Street, its red-and-white Art Moderne sign a beacon to the neighborhood since the theater opened its doors nearly 90 years ago and screened a silent Western for 20 cents a ticket. Today, it’s a home for art exhibits and special events and could soon be hosting concerts.

In downtown Houston, the three-story building at 308 Main blends in on its block of colorful and thriving Victorian commercial buildings, the last vestiges of Main Street’s 19th century past. Evenings these days, its balcony and downstairs bar draw young professionals to the to the nightlife offerings along the street.

Both the downtown and Heights buildings survived fires over the decades and have seen many businesses and concepts come and go, as interest waxed and waned in their respective neighborhoods. Both survive as destinations, thanks in part to their historic feel.

On Wednesday, a unanimous Houston City Council granted both structures the strongest form of historic protection in free-wheeling, tear-down Houston. Members voted to make the Heights Theatre, 339 W. 19th, and the Victorian at 308 Main protected landmarks. Two houses built by famed architects also were granted landmark status.

The commercial buildings on Main and on 19th received the highest level of protection in the city with “protected landmark” designation. This means the facade of the structures cannot be altered without approval and they cannot be torn down, except in cases of extreme hardship for the property owner.

The protected status is more sweeping than historic landmark, in which owners can tear down or alter their properties after a 90-day waiting period to allow time for negotiations with preservationists.

Built in 1929 with a Mission-style stucco façade, and updated in 1935 with an Art Moderne-style exterior, the Heights Theatre was partially destroyed by arson in 1969 and sat vacant until the late 1980s. It has since gone through a series of uses, including an antique store.

The property will soon be sold and become a music venue, said current owner Gus Kopriva, a Heights resident who has owned the property with his wife Sharon for 25 years.

The couple sought the landmark status to make sure the property was protected before it was sold to another owner. It currently serves as an art gallery and event space. Preservation was a stipulation in the sale of the building.

“The theater has always been an icon of the Heights,” Kopriva said. “It was important to us to make sure it was preserved.”

Cool. I’d love to see that place get used for something along the lines of its original purpose. And it’s great when the owners see historic designation as an asset. I look forward to seeing what its next phase looks like.

Revising the historic preservation ordinance

Gird your loins.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

Houston officials are preparing to revise the city’s historic preservation ordinance, a signature issue for Mayor Annise Parker that spurred a prolonged and divisive fight over property rights in her first term.

That contentiousness has never fully subsided in some neighborhoods, most notably the Heights, where redevelopment had seen numerous original structures razed before Parker’s sweeping revisions to the ordinance meant, for the first time, that the city’s Historical and Archaeological Commission could block owners from carrying out alterations to historic structures that it deemed inappropriate. Previously, a denial meant a 90-day wait, after which applicants could do as they wished.

The coming revisions will be modest, city officials say, but related efforts in the works may make the law’s application more predictable.

In the Heights’ seven historic districts, redevelopment has continued through the lens of the historic commission’s interpretation of the ordinance, which some residents and developers complain is arbitrary.

[…]

[Planning and Development Director Pat] Walsh said tweaks under consideration include:

  • Increasing the director’s ability to approve or deny minor alterations, preventing applicants from having to wait for approval at the historic commission’s monthly meetings; an example would be an addition to the back of the home not be visible from the street;
  • Clearing up vague or contradictory language. For instance, the ordinance says new construction projects should match “typical” structures of their type, but does not clarify what “typical” means. The law also says changes to roofs are exempt but, in another section, says roof changes are handled by staff.
  • Barring owners who make changes without city approval or violate their historic permit from receiving tax breaks for renovating historic structures, and lengthening the waiting period for applicants to get new building permits if they commit “demolition by neglect,” allowing an existing home to crumble to make construction of a new one easier.

Perhaps most important, Walsh said, are two related efforts that will not affect the wording of the law itself.

One is a pending study of the dimensions of homes in the Heights districts, providing staff and commissioners more information about how a proposed renovation compares to other homes. The other is Walsh’s commitment to pursue design guidelines for the three largest Heights districts, which generate the most activity.

It’s not terribly surprising that the preservation ordinance will need some maintenance. It’s a big change, and we have no history to go by for something like it. The story references former CM Sue Lovell, one of the main forces behind the ordinance who is now – and has been for awhile – working with developers and homeowners to get clarity on what is and isn’t allowed. All I can say is that whatever revisions are made this time, there will come a time to make more, and a time after that. This is a process, not a destination. The Leader News has more.

The preservation ordinance is a work in progress

That’s the tl;dr version of this.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

In October 2010, an emotional Sue Lovell, then a city council­woman, lauded the passage of a strengthened historic preservation ordinance for Houston after a long, complex and divisive battle she and Mayor Annise Parker had led.

In recent months, however, Lovell has appeared before the commissions tasked with implementing the ordinance to lobby on behalf of builders and homeowners seeking to remodel historic homes.

What changed?

Not her support for preservation or for the ordinance, Lovell said. What has shifted, she and others said, is the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission’s interpretation of the rules.

“I fought for this ordinance,” the former councilwoman said, “and I’m going to continue to fight to improve this ordinance.”

[…]

Parker said the ordinance is working well but acknowledged she has concerns with the law’s implementation, saying she sank a lot of political capital into the fight and wants it to work.

“The disconnect is not with the staff, it’s with the architectural and historical commission, which wants to substitute its judgment, on occasion, for that of the staff,” she said. “There are a couple activist commissioners over there who are hijacking the process.”

Historical Commission Chairman Maverick Welsh said the commission’s interpretations shift naturally as members leave and as city staff turn over, but he pointed to the overall approval rate as evidence of the body’s sound decisions.

“There’s this misconception that we’re this unreasonable bunch of preservationist people, but I think the data supports that we’re reasonable,” Welsh said. “I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from neighborhoods saying we’re too lenient and I’m getting pushback from developers saying we should approve everything. Somewhere in there is a balance, and I think that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

The path forward, Parker said, is to better educate the historical commission’s members and to tweak language in the ordinance to clarify its intent.

Creating objective standards for something that is inherently subjective is hard. You’re not going to get it right the first time. Hopefully, you create a good foundation that you can work with later. See what works, see what doesn’t, learn from experience, and keep refining. It’s an ongoing process, and it will never be truly finished.

The Dome’s status is complicated

Is it a landmark or not? If so, what kind?

We still have the memories

Mayor Annise Parker this week called an effort by the city historical commission to designate the Harris County-owned Astrodome a city landmark “ill-advised,” and said she had no plans to put the item before City Council for approval.

The Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission on Thursday is expected to vote to seek landmark designation for the 48-year-old stadium, where the county currently is carrying out $8 million worth of work, including asbestos abatement and demolition of exterior pedestrian towers added in the late 1980s.

[…]

City Attorney David Feldman said that if the commission votes to start the designation process, “the Astrodome would be subject to the requirement to get a ‘certificate of appropriateness’ for almost any activity affecting the exterior of the structure, including demolition, unless the county establishes that the ordinance does not apply to them.”

The historic preservation ordinance specifically applies to property owned by “a political subdivision of the state of Texas; provided such entities are not otherwise exempted from this article by law.”

In a memo sent to City Council members on Monday, however, Parker suggested it would be inappropriate for the city to impose landmark status on a building owned by another governmental entity.

“While a resolution supporting preservation of the Astrodome might have my support, the Astrodome is a Harris County facility, and imposing a city historic designation on it without approval of the property owner would be unprecedented,” Parker wrote.

The historic landmark idea came up shortly after the election. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has said it likely won’t make any difference since the main thing that designation does is put a halt on demolition for 90 days, and as we know they’re in no hurry to do anything permanent. There are other possibilities as well.

Meanwhile, a separate effort is afoot to get the Dome designated a national historic landmark, which would make it eligible for federal funding and also for designation as a state historic landmark – like the Alamo – which would bar demolition.

“That’s the ultimate goal,” said Cynthia Neely, who helped prepare an application to nominate the 1965 stadium for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Texas Historical Commission approved the application in October. Neely said she expects the National Park Service to add it to the register in January.

Ms. Neely has a long history with Astrodome advocacy. I think I remember seeing something about the Texas Historical Commission taking action, but this is the first I can recall hearing about the National Register of Historic Places possibly being involved. If that happens, I wonder what the implications would be for any private investors that may be lurking out there. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Not in a rush about the Dome after all

We’ll get to deciding what to do with the Dome when we get to it.

We still have the memories

Harris County leaders are in no rush to decide what to do with the Astrodome, leaving the empty and decaying stadium to languish further following last week’s voter rejection of a $217 million plan to convert the iconic stadium to an events center.

Although a majority of court members said prior to Election Day that demolition would be the obvious choice in the event voters turned down the event center plan, not one of them is championing a tear-down.

“I’m kind of over it. I mean, I’m going to go do other things for awhile and see what happens,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday. “This really isn’t the top priority in my life.”

The delay could give historic preservationists time to gain some type of landmark status for the 1965 Dome, which could block its demolition or place limitations on what could be done with it.

Even Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who has suggested turning the sunken floor of the Dome into a detention pond in an effort to mitigate flooding and slash the cost of filling the 35-foot-deep hole, said he has no plans to push for a vote to demolish the dilapidated stadium.

“I do not intend to put that on the agenda anytime soon,” Radack said. “We’ll see what other ideas emerge.”

[…]

Commissioners Court will have some built-in lag time: Dome asbestos abatement, slated for approval Tuesday, is expected to begin in December and will take an estimated six months to complete.

“I have no deadlines in my mind,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said last week after the election.

Look, I voted for the Dome resolution. I myself suggested that the referendum didn’t specify demolition if it failed. I’m as happy as anyone that we’re not fitting it up for the wrecking ball right now. But something needs to happen, and Commissioners Court needs to make up its mind. We can’t go back to the status quo, if only because the 2017 Super Bowl is looming, and there will for sure be plenty of pressure from the Texans and the NFL to Do Something. If demolition is in the future, then let’s be clear about it and not raise any false hopes. If Commissioners Court really doesn’t want to demolish the Dome, then they need to get another plan out there pronto. There is a deadline, and we can’t just sit around and wait any more.

In the meantime, other groups that do know what they want to do are taking their own action.

The city of Houston’s historical commission has voted unanimously to consider an effort that could give landmark status to the endangered Astrodome.

Maverick Welsh, chairman of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission, put forward the motion at the agency’s monthly meeting last week.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Welsh said. “We have to focus on saving this building.”

The move, however, was principally symbolic. Such a designation would only put a 90-day hold on any demolition.

“It’s the only thing we can do as a commission to try and raise attention of saving the dome,” Welsh said.

If the commission decides to move forward, City Council would have final say on the historic designation.

I don’t know that this is anything more than a symbolic gesture, but at least it’s a direction. If the stakes in this election were “vote for the New Dome Experience or we’ll be forced to try and figure something else out” and not “vote for the New Dome Experience or the Dome goes bye-bye”, then Commissioners Court needs to get cracking on figuring out that something else. If it was the latter, then I’d rather get it over with quickly than string it out. But please, we’ve had the vote. Please tell us what it meant and then do something about it. Campos and Texpatriate have more.

Lawsuit filed over historic preservation ordinance

I got an email last week from Kathleen Powell of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston announcing that the first lawsuit against Houston’s new historic preservation. You can see a copy of the complaint here. What I have not seen is a mention of this on any news-related website. Nothing on the Chron, or Swamplot, or CultureMap, heck not even a mention on the RHP for Houston site itself, just this HAIF forum thread, which has predictably descended into invective.

The suit itself makes the following claims:

– The city violated the original preservation ordinance of 1995 by not having a hearing prior to the amendment of that ordinance. They also claimed that there was not a hearing by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission (HAHC) prior to the adoption of the new ordinance, in violation of the original ordinance.

– They claim the new ordinance violates section 13 of the city charter, which forbids zoning.

– They claim the reconsideration process was not legal.

– They claim the city ignored the level of support for reconsideration in the Woodland Heights and Glenbrook Valley and illegally approved their designations as historic.

– They claim the city illegally reduced the value of a property owned by the plaintiffs by not allowing them to demolish the original structure on it.

– They claim federal civil rights violations and Texas electoral code violations.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave it to those better versed in these matters to evaluate these claims. The suit was assigned to the 215th Civil District Court, for which the judge is Steven Kirkland, and the email that was sent made a big deal out of Judge Kirkland’s friendship with Mayor Parker and his recusal from the lawsuit over the firefighters’ pension fund. I expect the first order of business here will be a motion for him to recuse himself in this suit as well.

That’s all I know at this time. You can find the filing on the District Clerk webpage here, or go to http://www.hcdistrictclerk.com/edocs/Public/Search.aspx and search for Cause #2012-36113. Depending on who you believe in that HAIF thread, this will either be kicked on a summary judgment motion, or the city will go down like the Titanic. We’ll see who’s right.

The new Historic Preservation ordinance

From Swamplot:

The mayor’s office is out with a “public comment draft” of proposed changes to Houston’s Historic Preservation Ordinance. The biggest (and most expected) change: There’ll be no more 90-day “compliance waivers” issued for historic-district properties. Under the previous ordinance, owners of contributing properties in historic districts whose plans for new construction, demolition, or renovation had been rejected by the city’s historic commission could proceed with those plans anyway after simply waiting 90 days. Under these changes, the Old Sixth Ward — labeled a “protected” historic district because the waivers weren’t allowed there — will now be the model for all others.

But the changes also include a completely revised process for neighborhoods to vote on historic-district status. Previously, for a neighborhood to file an historic-preservation application, it needed to submit a petition signed by owners representing more than 51 percent of its tracts. But the new system puts power into the hands of owners who are willing to express an opinion and takes it away from those who can’t be bothered or found. It allows an application to be filed if 67 percent of the property owners in a district who send in special cards distributed for that purpose indicate on those cards that they’re in favor of the designation.

I like that change. If you really don’t care one way or another, or at least don’t care enough to officially say so, you shouldn’t be part of the process. The threshold is low enough for opponents to win, and it makes the job of those who favor historic preservation status easier, too. Finally, getting rid of the 90-day waivers, which are one of the biggest jokes in Houston, is a huge step in the right direction. What was the point of even having a commission if its rulings meant nothing?

Of course, this is a long way from finished, and even if it makes it to the finish line, there may be many changes along the way. But first this proposal has to overcome the usual opposition from the usual suspects.

Josh Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, an organization that includes developers and advocates for private property rights, said the new rules could hurt the economy.

“It’s going to slow growth. It’s going to potentially slow down an area that’s rapidly redeveloping,” Sanders said, adding that residents should be able to vote on whether to accept the new rules.

I believe the petition process, in which a one-third minority can prevent a given subdivision from gaining the historic designation, is more than sufficient to ensure that all interested parties have a say in the outcome. And slowing things down, in these historic areas, is the point. Ask the people who used to live in Freedmen’s Town if they think easing the throttle on rapid development is a feature or a bug. As for the call for a vote, that’s just a page from the anti-rail playbook, in which the solution to something you don’t like is to keep calling for the people to vote on whatever it is you don’t like in the hope that sooner or later they’ll vote against it.

Anyway, there’s more to read there and at the Swamplot link, so go take a look; see also these relevant links from the Planning Office. The press release from the Mayor’s office, with a list of dates and locations for public meetings about the proposed changes, is beneath the fold.

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Council passes demolition moratorium for historic properties

Houston City Council has taken a step forward to providing stronger protection for historic properties.

City Council passed a temporary law today that puts a moratorium on demolitions in Houston’s 15 historic districts.

The city’s 15-year-old preservation ordinance has allowed a property owner to proceed with a renovation, demolition or relocation in one of the districts after a 90-day waiting period — even if the change had been rejected by the Houston Archeological and Historic Commission.

After today, the commission’s ruling will stand as the city makes permanent changes to the law.

The vote was 13-1 in favor, with Council Member C.O. Bradford the lone “No”; CM Mike Sullivan, who had previously voiced some objections to the law, was absent. I had thought this would be more contentious, but maybe that will come when the permanent ordinance gets debated. I’m glad to see this happen, and I look forward to that discussion. Along the way, Council also designated First Montrose Commons as a historic district. One subdivision of my neighborhood is also working on that. Quite the change for Houston, isn’t it?

Council may vote today to strengthen preservation ordinance

Last week, we heard that Houston City Council was considering a change to the historic preservation ordinance that would actually prevent structures from being torn down or moved if the Houston Archeological and Historic Commission denied the request to do so. Right now, all that the owner of such a property needs to do is wait 90 days, then go ahead and do whatever he or she had originally planned. Assuming it doesn’t get tagged, Council will vote today on a proposal that would suspend 90 day waivers until the modified ordinance is ready for debate.

“We’re voting [today] to protect our historic structures in our historic districts until the committee of stakeholders agrees on revisions to the current historic preservation ordinance,” said Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who chairs the council committee that deals with preservation matters.

[…]

If passed, the temporary update would take effect immediately and apply to all new applications for demolitions, relocations and new construction on property in any of the city’s 15 historic districts. The new rule would not apply to those owners who already have sought permission for changes, which can run the gamut from demolition to a window update. Those who can show that they already have paid a contractor for work related to a change to their property also could get an exemption from the new rule, said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

The task force weighing the permanent changes and Lovell’s council committee are expected to work together to produce final proposed amendments to the ordinance. The city then would notify residents of its historic districts about the proposed changes, hold hearings and vet concerns, Hartgrove said.

Preservationists are understandably happy about this; I certainly think it’s long overdue. So far I have not seen any reaction from the developers, or from the shills like Kendall Miller of Houstonians for Responsible Growth. (Their website appears to be out of date – the most recent “latest news” on it is from last October. I wonder what’s up with that.) You can never really judge these things till you know who’s against them and why. My guess is that this will get tagged, and we’ll have a better idea of where the battle lines are after that.