July 23, 2007
Preservation, then and now

This story gives some idea of how far the idea of historic preservation has come in Houston over the last decade or so.

A year ago, Houston's small but passionate preservation community was galvanized by warnings that the River Oaks Theatre, the River Oaks Shopping Center and the Alabama Theater building could face demolition within two years.

By that time, Mayor Bill White had begun his administration's gradual effort to strengthen the city's preservation law, long regarded as among the weakest in the country. White and the City Council created a new "protected landmarks" category allowing owners to protect certain buildings in perpetuity and provided tax incentives for doing so.

White's efforts are expected to culminate Aug. 1, when the council considers a protected historic district for the Old Sixth Ward that would include the first unqualified ban on demolition of historic buildings ever enacted in Houston.


The mayor's incremental approach to the issue has been more successful than a bolder, more controversial effort that died in a City Council committee led by then-Councilwoman Annise Parker five years ago.

Parker, now the city controller, said Houston's preservation climate has improved since then for a number of reasons: White and several City Council members are more interested than their predecessors were in preservation. Stakeholders trust White to be an "honest broker" of their diverse interests. And business leaders increasingly recognize the importance of quality-of-life issues such as historic preservation.

Though preservation groups' leaders don't always get along, Parker said, they concluded that even small victories are better than none. "People see so much of our history being lost," Parker said. "They're willing to take a compromise that they wouldn't before, because they're so desperate for something to happen."


Serious efforts to curb destruction of the spaces holding Houston's collective memories began in the 1990s when preservationists lobbied then-Mayor Bob Lanier for an ordinance imposing some controls on demolition or alteration of historic buildings.

It was a tough sell in a relatively young city with a culture that revered individual property rights and the prosperity fueled by new development. But Lanier agreed to consider the idea.

The result was Houston's first preservation ordinance, adopted by the City Council in 1995. It created an Archaeological and Historical Commission to review applications for demolition or alteration of certain historic buildings; denial would require owners to wait 90 days before proceeding.

The ordinance was helpful, preservationists said, but its shortcomings soon became apparent as one property owner after another waited the required 90 days and then proceeded with demolition. Some particularly beloved buildings were destroyed in the dead of night to avoid protests.

I did a little trekking through the archives of the Houston Press, which I know ran an article on such a midnight demolition years ago, but couldn't find what I was remembering. I did find these two articles, from 2001 and 1998, respectively, which will give you a pretty good feel for where we once were, so you can really see how far we've come since then. I think in the end, the White Administration will do more for this effort than anyone else has before. But we'll have to check back in another ten years to see where we are then as compared to now to know for sure.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 23, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

You may be thinking about the overnight demolitions in Old Market Square done by the Pappas Family. It spurred many into taking action and getting the 1995 City ordinance passed, which is voluntary.

In August 2005, many in historic neighborhoods heard that a deal was being made to strengthen the Preservation ordinance. None of us had a seat at the table, and didn't know what changes it would bring forth. When we finally did see it, we saw there were so many hoops and restrictions, that it would be worthless to most neighborhoods. The Sixth Ward proposed ammendments to the proposed ordinance, and CM Garcia agreed to carry them forward. As I was lobbying for the ammendments before City Council, I was being told by GHPA that my behaviour was wrong and insulting to City Council, that I was kicking a gift horse in the mouth, and that they were doing this for Preservation in Houston. After myself and others pleading our case, City Council agreed that the ammendments were vital to protecting historic resources in the community. This gave us the "Protected Landmark" ordinance, which I think was alot of the impetus to get protections in place, and the need to do it now. None of this could move forward without the support of the Mayor and Council, we finally have a District H councilmember who "gets it" along with a good number of Councilmembers, and of course the Mayor.

Posted by: Larissa Lindsay on July 23, 2007 8:17 AM

I just don't get this issue. If some people are so"passionate" about preservation, why don't they pool their money and buy these buildings themselves. They could then be sold to new owners with a deed restriction that would give this group the option to repurchase before any demolition or remodelling. If you are "passionate" about this, put your money where mouth is instead of taking property rights away from their rightful owners. Some of these owners have owned these buildings for many years and deserve the right to make a profit at market rates.

Posted by: rl on July 23, 2007 12:12 PM

Far too often, the building never goes on the open market. The owner has gotten a letter from a developer saying "we will buy your property and take care of existing buildings" and the property is sold with no notice to individuals willing to buy. In other cases, the selling price is so high that the only thing you can make money on immediately is high density, 3 townhouses on a lot, or combining lots for a high rise. Making it hard to compete with those deals.

Posted by: Larissa Lindsay on July 23, 2007 1:22 PM