The Myth of a Preservation Incentive

The following is from Terri Myers, a professional historic preservation consultant who has evaluated and documented thousands of historic homes in Austin and is currently working with our own Travis Heights-Fairview Park Historic District. She lives in the Hancock Neighborhood, which is threatened with significant upzoning.

Dear Neighbors,

Don’t be fooled by the so-called Preservation Incentive. The mayor promised to get back with me when I asked him about the preservation incentive that he and council members tout as protecting neighborhood character, but he has not done so to date.

So, I read the section in the new land development code and it appears to be an even greater incentive for developers to TARGET historic homes and any house more than 30 years old for redevelopment, as they get an extra unit on the site for “preserving” 50% of the linear walls.

Reading further, it appears that they only have to “preserve” 50% of the wall line, studs, floor plate and top plate, but doesn’t address which walls or wall sections, so it could be the rear wall or parts of walls, not necessarily the primary, street-facing facade which is usually the most important in conveying historic appearance. It doesn’t preserve height or size, so a one-story bungalow can be remodeled with 2-3 stories or more depending on the zone. Neither does the new code preserve the roof line, form, or pitch so a historic gabled house may be remodeled with a flat roof, or steeply angled roof like many ultra modern houses being built as infill in our historic neighborhoods

Almost inconceivably, the new code doesn’t apply to any “exterior finishes” such as siding type or materials, character-defining architectural details such as “gingerbread” on Victorian houses or classical columns on Classical Revival style homes. It doesn’t apply to doors, windows, or window patterns, porches or significant porch features such as decorative turned posts on Victorian houses or tapered wood posts on piers as seen in Craftsman bungalows. So, you might ask, as I did, what does the preservation incentive actually preserve? From my reading of the new code as a 34-year professional historic preservation planner and consultant, the answer is “Nothing.” Nothing of any real value or meaning in terms of the preservation of historic buildings – it doesn’t preserve their design, materials, decorative details, or character-defining features. “Preservation incentive” in the new code is more of a red herring to make us believe the city has thrown neighborhoods a bone when, in fact, it seems to be included to encourage the near complete demolition of historic and older homes by giving developers yet another unit than is currently allowed in the new LDC.

Whether people are for or against preservation, they should know that the “preservation incentive” is not preservation – just an incentive to replace history.

Terri Myers