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InsideOut At City Hall: Well Preserved

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l PreservedRetaining Houston’s historic buildings impacts the future of our city.

When I travel, I often tour historic districts, sometimes visiting historic homes to get a glimpse of the past. One of my favorite local drives is along Heights Boulevard. With its beautiful, grand Victorian homes and Craftsman bungalows, the boulevard reminds us of a different era. Drivers in Charleston (where my mother lives), Savannah, San Antonio, or Philadelphia could tour for hours looking at magnificent homes and buildings, many more than 100 years old. Sadly, Heights is a relatively short drive in Houston. Hundreds of Victorian mansions and 19th-century buildings that once graced Houston now only exist in the pages of history books.  

We can’t bring back Houston’s stately past. However, we can prevent more destruction and put protections and incentives into what many consider the weakest historic preservation ordinance in the nation. That’s what City Council members began attempting in early March, although they remain very timid about any imposition on private property rights, and all the proposed restrictions are voluntary. Bolstered by the outcry over possible demolition of the River Oaks shopping center and both the River Oaks and Alabama theaters, council passed the first of what could be several ordinance enhancements designed to provide greater protection for the relatively few remaining historic structures in Houston.

The first step created the category of protected landmark. A property designated a protected landmark by the city may never be torn down.

More recently, City Council imposed a temporary moratorium on demolitions in the Old Sixth Ward north of downtown, which includes some of the oldest residential buildings in the city. This protection will expire on September 1, giving council time to consider land use controls that will apply only to the Old Sixth Ward. As an owner of some historic houses in that neighborhood, I am watching with interest.

Another proposal would allow permanent 100 percent tax exemptions for about 50 commercial buildings deemed to be the city’s most significant historic structures. The tax break would be contingent on maintenance of the building’s historic façade. Included on this list are the River Oaks Theater and the downtown Macy’s (formerly Foley’s) building. Unfortunately, this plan as currently crafted would not apply to single-family residences. I hope that changes. Providing incentives to save the few remaining historic houses is just as important as working to preserve commercial buildings. People who own these homes sometimes need the tax break, among other incentives, to restore an exterior to its original glory.

There are also proposals to make it easier for residents to apply for creation of a historic district as well as increased penalties for illegal demolition of a historic structure.

Great cities

Most current City Council members realize that great cities preserve their history. Historic preservation protects a diversity and way of life that is fast disappearing. When we tear down the past, we lose our referents, our compass points. Newcomers find there is nothing here to link them to the past and the cities they once knew.  

Respected social scientists like Richard Florida produce one survey after another concluding that quality of life (enhanced by parks, good neighborhoods, diversity and tolerance , recreation, and historic preservation) attracts highly mobile top graduates and families to cities–not to mention tourists and conventioneers.

Houston style

The seven historic districts of Houston make up less than 3 percent of the city’s 630-plus square miles. Working for historic preservation in this sprawling growth center is like swimming upstream. It goes against the tide of Houston history. This is a city of change, of movement, of the new. If you don’t like the landscape, reform it. Replant the coastal prairie with live oaks. If the city isn’t well positioned for trade, build a 50-mile ditch to the Gulf of Mexico and call it the Houston Ship Channel. If you don’t like the climate, change it–thus, air conditioning and the Astrodome.

Historic preservation in Houston will be Houston-style. It must be dynamic, recognizing changing conditions and needs, not an attempt to put bell jars over neighborhoods or save static “house museums.”  

We will have to make the real estate market value the past, to prove the dollar potential of historic properties. While there has to be a prohibition framework–the “thou shalt nots”–it will have to be broad and flexible. And we must provide incentives more than sanctions. We must be proactive rather than reactive. Education is the key. We need an inventory so we’ll know what we have and have the potential of losing. We’re creating a roadmap of what we need to do and where we need to do it.

What a difference a new City Council makes. As a City Council member, I sponsored what was a somewhat tougher historic preservation ordinance that had come out of the city’s Archeological and Historical Commission after two years of hard work. A council committee rejected the revisions and voted 7-6 to make participation in city historic districts voluntary. Mayor Lee Brown (Bill White’s predecessor) did not put the weakened ordinance on the full council agenda.

The City Council stands on the brink of creating a far more livable city, where historic preservation and neighborhood planning take their rightful place alongside responsible development.
Annise Parker is the second-term city controller and the highest-ranking openly GLBT elected municipal official in any of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Her website is www.houstoncontroller.org . Parker’s television program, Money Matters, airs Monday on the Municipal Channel (Time Warner Cable 16) at 2 and 8 a.m. and 2 and 8 p.m.

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Annise Parker

Annise Parker is president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund.  
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