He proposed creation of a special district within the neighborhood west of downtown with design guidelines for new construction and renovation, along with financial incentives to discourage demolition of historic houses.
"The Old Sixth Ward is a very special place in Houston," White told the City Council. "Thank goodness it's there. Though we have preservation needs in many parts of the city, this is unique in the concentration of historical structures."
Preservationists said the mayor's comments reflect growing public support for stronger efforts to protect historic neighborhoods and buildings in a city whose preservation laws have been criticized as inadequate.
"I think it's a positive, great step," said Lynn Edmundson, the president of Historic Houston. "It's a response to a big outcry from all the older neighborhoods."
With its competing pressures for protection of historic houses and for development close to downtown, the Old Sixth Ward is the perfect laboratory to test new preservation strategies, Edmundson said.
Larissa Lindsay, the president of the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association, said she was delighted at the mayor's commitment, particularly since he agreed to give neighborhood leaders a role in developing the ordinance.
"We've been working on this for 10 to 15 years," Lindsay said. "We have a lot of history and institutional knowledge."
Janice Jamail-Garvis, a Realtor who heads a group opposed to stricter controls on development in the Old Sixth Ward, said she would have to see the details of White's plan before deciding whether to support it.
The city's existing preservation ordinance permits owners of buildings in designated historic districts to raze the structures 90 days after they apply for a demolition permit, even if the city's Archaeological and Historical Commission initially denies the application.
White said this waiting period should be longer and should be coupled with financial incentives that would diminish the owner's motivation to tear the building down -- a strategy used successfully in other cities.
The Houston measure also must include provisions for funding in hardship cases in which historical houses have fallen into disrepair and the owners lack the money to fix them up, White said. These funds would come through the neighborhood's Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, in which revenue generated by rising property values funds neighborhood improvements.
"I am confident that our public attitudes toward historical preservation have matured within this city and that people don't need to get all carried away in thinking that if we do one thing to protect a unique neighborhood ... it means that nobody can do anything anywhere with their property without some ... official telling them what to do," he said.