That’s the tl;dr version of this.
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.
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.