The new tax incentive, which excludes single-family residences but could affect dozens of other buildings in and around the city's core, is among several proposals that could foster preservation and maintenance of historically significant structures, officials say.
The plans also call for a reduction in the percentage of neighborhood support required to designate a historic district, and other revisions to city rules that the City Council will consider soon.
While preservationists might prefer a tougher law banning any demolition of historic landmarks, the compromise could be more palatable to developers and property rights advocates who argue the city shouldn't dictate how owners manage their structures.
"I think it's extremely significant," said Barrie Scardino, the executive director of the American Institute of Architects' Houston chapter.
In addition to the specific policy changes, Scardino said, the tax abatements and other measures will send a message that the city is serious about preserving its history.
City Controller Annise Parker, who headed a committee that worked on historic preservation when she served on the council, said the omission of residences is a serious weakness in the proposal.
"The residential properties are under tremendous assault from new development," Parker said.
Buildings that meet the criteria would be eligible for a full, permanent exemption from city property taxes, and officials said the city will ask Harris County to provide a tax exemption as well. Owners would have to refund any tax savings if they altered the building's facade.
It wasn't clear Wednesday whether county officials might go along with the tax idea.
County Commissioner Steve Radack said the county relies so heavily on property taxes for revenue that it rarely, if ever, can grant 100 percent exemptions.
"Unlike the city, the county doesn't have the luxury of bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars a year on a sales tax," Radack said.
The county has in the past offered temporary and limited tax incentives for historic structures.