Big Changes for Houston’s Preservation Ordinance? Mayor Parker Wants a Temporary Ban on Those 90-Day Exemptions

Some major changes to the implementation of Houston’s long-ridiculed historic preservation ordinance may be coming very soon, if a proposal supported by Mayor Annise Parker passes a city council vote that could occur as early as next Wednesday, Swamplot has learned. Under the current ordinance (for all designated historic districts except for the Old Sixth Ward, now a designated “protected” historic district), owners of historic-district properties whose plans for demolition, new construction, or remodeling have been rejected by the city’s Archaeological and Historical Commission have been able to proceed with their plans anyway — simply by waiting 90 days.

But in an email to Swamplot, a spokesperson indicates the Mayor wants the commission to “temporarily discontinue” the issuing of such 90-day waivers for the remainder of this calendar year — or until amendments to the preservation ordinance are hashed out and approved by city council (whichever comes first). Under some revisions to the ordinance likely to be considered in that 7-month period, 90-day waivers could be eliminated entirely.

Swamplot was alerted to the potential changes by a builder, who became alarmed that “anyone, property owner or builder, who does not already have a Certificate of Appropriateness for demolition or new construction as of next Wednesday will not be able to get one until next year.” The changes the Mayor is proposing aren’t quite that drastic, however. Parker communications director Janice Evans indicates that the Houston Archeological and Historic Commission will still issue “certificates of appropriateness” while any moratorium on 90-day waivers is in place; anyone whose request for a certificate has been rejected will be able to appeal the decision to the Planning Commission.

What permanent changes to the preservation ordinance are being considered? A committee led by council member Sue Lovell — including fellow council member Ed Gonzalez as well as representatives of the historical and planning commissions — has been charged with reviewing it. All changes, notes Evans, “will be considered by the HAHC, the planning commission and City Council, providing numerous opportunities for dialogue and public input.” In the meantime, the mayor “supports the temporary discontinuance because it will allow for a pause in activity while discussions regarding increased protections occur with various stakeholders,” Evans tells Swamplot.

Want more details about the mayor’s proposal? Here’s the text of our Q-and-A with her communications director:


(all emphasis in the original)

Swamplot: Is there a proposal the mayor is considering that would suspend applications to the Historic Committee . . . ? Is it slated for discussion and/or voting before city council anytime soon? Does the mayor support this measure?

Evans: There is a proposal to temporarily discontinue the issuance of a 90-day waiver certificate for demolitions, relocations and new construction in City of Houston Historic Districts when a Certificate of Appropriateness is denied by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission (HAHC). A property owner may appeal the denial to the Houston Planning Commission. If the HAHC approves a C of A for demolition, relocation or new construction, the project may move forward. The proposed discontinuation would be until amendments are adopted to the historic preservation ordinance or December 31, 2010, whichever is earlier. The temporary discontinuation will have to be presented for discussion and a vote by City Council, possibly as early as next week. The mayor does support this and has said repeatedly in the news media that she wants real protection for the historic districts. She supports the temporary discontinuance because it will allow for a pause in activity while discussions regarding increased protections occur with various stakeholders.

Swamplot: What process would be necessary to alter the Historic District guidelines? What processes would be necessary to convert existing Historic Districts to Protected Historic Districts? What is the mayor’s position on these ideas?

Evans: No changes have been developed. The temporary discontinuation is the first step in the process. Mayor Parker has appointed Council Member Sue Lovell to lead the committee that is reviewing the ordinance. Other committee members include Council Member Ed Gonzalez and representatives from the HAHC and city planning commission. Any recommended changes will be considered by the HAHC, the planning commission and City Council, providing numerous opportunities for dialogue and public input.

28 Comment

  • It is true that the current 90 day process is toothless. However, for the Certificate of Appropriateness procedure to work, it is important that COH develop a better idea of what is reasonable in an historic district. The current ordinance is pretty much all gray area in this regard, and the Historic Preservation Officer’s interpretation of things can often seem arbitrary and more than a little biased, particularly given the already diluted nature of some of our historic districts.

    Another issue that needs to be addressed is the composition of the Historical and Archaeological Commission, itself. That board is currently a mish-mash of genuinely thoughtful individuals, and others who are flat-out zealots. The process of adjudicating these matters needs to be fair, and needs fair-minded individuals to succeed.

    The costs associated with historic preservation are substantial. If the city is serious about encouraging owners to play ball, the mayor and council need to go further in providing economic incentives to do so – such as more significant tax abatements. Otherwise, the only people who will preserve buildings will be doing so as a labor of love, and there are simply not enough people out there with both the will and economic capacity to do so.

  • It will be interesting to see what they come up with – it will probably be an invitation to more lawsuits.

  • Mies’ point is well taken. That said, in principle, this is a good idea. I’ve owned in a historic district before, and properly managed, the impact on homeowners is twofold: your quality of life is better, and your property goes up in value, because your neighborhood is not a commodity.

  • A certificate of appropriateness has nothing to do with historic preservation. A 4,000 sq. ft. Victorian-style home is simply a huge fake. But there are many people who feel they have seen the Eiffel Tower because they have been to Las Vegas.
    The city was too late on action for Old Sixth Ward as well and it is now too late for The Heights and most of the Montrose as well.

  • If builders are required to have a Certificate of Appropriateness, that turns the commission into the taste police. If they dig your bric a brac, you are good to go. The result would be a ban on modern design.

  • finness writes:
    If builders are required to have a Certificate of Appropriateness, that turns the commission into the taste police. If they dig your bric a brac, you are good to go. The result would be a ban on modern design.
    In a true historic neighborhood, where most of the housing stock is a certain age and style, what’s wrong with that? What’s so wrong with “preserve what you can and re-create what you must?”

  • My old house in Spring Branch has “distinctive characteristics of architecture, building type, construction period or method that is representative of an area” (meaning it looks like all the other one-story ranch houses with wood siding and 8-foot ceilings)and is “at least 50 years old.”

    While I’m quite fond of it – having raised kids in it – there is nothing remotely historic about it.

    Be very careful about letting city government have this kind of power.

  • The reality of “historic preservation” is that it is a means to an end and the end is to stop gentrification of otherwise affordable neighborhoods including some that really are not historic in any sense of the word other than they are older neighborhoods with older homes.

    The hypocrisy of “historic preservation” is that none of the “leaders” of this movement, including the mayor, did much to stop the gentrification of Freedmans Town and Fourth Ward. Or to stop the demolition of truly historic structures.

    In fact they did nothing.

  • Marmer- I simply don’t see anything ‘historic’ or ‘appropriate’ about 90% of the new contruction. Most are heinous huge boxes with Houston inappropriate scrolly-doos, curly iron or limestone walls, not to mention the deservedly despised faux Tuscan.
    I have seen so much beautiful restoration of original homes, I reject the notion that it can’t be done.
    My objection from the start was the scale! A huge Hardiplank box on a tiny lot that requires complete tree removal is blasphemy. But that is not what the Commission cares about.
    I have always advocated a maximum footprint rule for historic areas but it is way too late for Houston.

  • Another thing to consider – When Houston’s historic districts are established, a map is created showing the historic and contributing structures. However, what happens over time as these structures are demolished and replaced with either non-compatible structures, or faux historical structures, as has been occurring in some of these neighborhoods? There appears to be no process that I am aware of to de-list a neighborhood once enough of the historic stock is gone.

    That said, I agree with Finness’ comments about footprint/lot coverage. I would rather see a modern house that fits the scale of the historical neighborhood than to have a way-too-big faux historical house sitting next to a bungalow.

  • So, Mies, are you saying that if I desire a larger house on my Heights area lot, which is convenient to my job downtown, I should move, rather than build something that offends your sense of what is “right” for the area? In actuality, it’s really none of your business what I build, as long as it complies with all the relevant building codes.

    The whole “historic district” concept is just a means for the control freaks of the world to force their views on their neighbors. If you want to preserve your neighborhood, get the owners to agree to deed restrictions that limit what can be built. Those would be voluntary, not forced upon unwilling recipients by government fiat.

  • “In actuality, it’s really none of your business what I build, as long as it complies with all the relevant building codes.”

    Baloney. Part of the value of my home is the nature of what’s around it, and what you build does indeed affect my quality of life and property value.

    And while it’s hard to put a dollar value on preserving a neighborhood of a type that isn’t built anymore, that does have value.

    I’m curious how many people telling us what the results of historic preservation rules with some teeth to them have ever been homeowners in a historic district protected by strict rules. (I have.)

  • Ross- how would you feel if your neighbor tore his house down and built a huge three-story, zero lot-line house next door to your bungalow? It is one thing to spout free-market platitudes when it is your rights that are being limited, it is another when it is your annoying neighbors’ rights…. Look, I don’t agree with the preservationist zealots who would freeze the neighborhood as it was in the thirties, but I do think that part of the charm of many historic neighborhoods has to do with their scale. Hopefully there is a happy compromise that allows bigger houses, up to a point. Of course, if you need an indoor swimming pool, gift-wrap room and two extra guest suites, you could always buy a bigger lot.

  • finness writes:

    I simply don’t see anything ‘historic’ or ‘appropriate’ about 90% of the new contruction. Most are heinous huge boxes with Houston inappropriate scrolly-doos, curly iron or limestone walls, not to mention the deservedly despised faux Tuscan.
    I agree completely and I’m probably closer to your position than it seems. I wasn’t clear enough about “re-create when you must.” What I meant was 1) don’t demolish unless a building is truly beyond repair and 2) if a building IS truly beyond repair, replace it with something similar in scale AND design. If your bungalow burns down, build a similar bungalow. I’ve seen plenty of old houses which were greatly expanded and modernized in a perfectly appropriate way in Galveston, the Heights, and Montrose. You probably have too.
    I’ve also seen the historic districts in Galveston, when 50’s and 60’s tract style houses and apartments went in piecemeal before the historic restrictions went into effect. Those “inappropriate” houses are now generally, if not entirely, much more poorly maintained and lower in value than their preserved neighbors. Of course it’s also true that a lot of historic homes have little or no real connection to our culture or geography, instead emulating traditional styles from totally different parts of the world. I’ve got to admit that about the late lamented Hyde Park Tudor, for example.

  • As a homeowner in the Heights I agree that scale is a factor in new construction but I would like to point out one important financial reality. It is next to impossible to finance the new construction of a smaller home. Given that the average lot costs $250,000 and the average cost to build new is another $135 per square foot, a new 1200 sf “Bungalow” will set you back $412,000 plus. You are now sitting in a new bungalow with a total cost of $343 per square foot. The average appraised value of homes in the Heights is around $200 – $225 per square foot. Banks will not finance this project unless you make up the difference in cash, so your looking at bringing $162,000 to the closing table plus a 20% down payment.

    Hopefully the HAHC realizes this reality and continues to allow larger homes to be built. There has to be a happy medium square footage wise.

    It is also important to point out that it is not cheap to do a major renovation to an existing bungalow. If you want to redo the plumbing, electrical, insulation, sheet rock etc you soon find yourself spending more for the renovation than you would spend on a new home. Many of the “remodels” are simply saving the studs and the sub floor, I don’t see the value in such a “preservation”.And once again, the banks simply will not finance a project that is not in line with the local comps.

  • Chester – I know plenty of renovations that enlarge the house and do it very well. There are also new homes that blend in beautifully.
    But if one’s only concern is cost, don’t move into an Historic neighborhood.
    Ross is right- in Houston, neighborhood integrity is non-existent. Self centeredness is the rule.
    And when all the trees are gone and the land is all covered in buildings, flooding will be far worse, but nobody is willing to address that.

  • Mies, my neighbor can’t build a three story zero lot line house because the minimal deed restrictions in my subdivision require setbacks and limit height. That’s my point, if you want restrictions, convince your neighbors to voluntarily agree to them. Don’t try to get around the wishes of a majority of the property owners by getting the City of Houston to do your dirty work.

  • finness,

    As someone who is about to do a tasteful renovation, in the scale of the block face, without removing trees, and preserving the integrity of the neighborhood I am simply stating a reality. In order to accomplish all of this I will have to overcome the banks underwriting policies and invest substantially more equity than I would elsewhere.

    For most people cost is a very important concern when purchasing a home, I never said it was the only concern, but it is unavoidable. If regulations are too tight there will be a real financial price to pay in order to maintain a high percentage of smaller home inventory.

    I do live in the neighborhood, which was not a historic district when I purchased the home. Are you suggesting that I now move because I no longer fit in, or that I am no longer welcome here?

  • So many of the “contributing” buildings in the designnated historic districts have been demolished, which has offset the percentage versus “non-contributing” structures. To redefine the ordinance at this point I think will require a re-evaluation of the percentage of “contributing” buildings required. Adopting a new ordinance after the previous will be quite a task.

  • Chester is totally correct about the financing bind that faces anyone who tries to remodel a bungalow without substantially increasing its size. This phenomenon struck West U in the mid 90’s, when homeowners found that renovating, or modestly expanding their homes had no impact on the appraised value, as the land was worth too much. It has been happening in the Heights for some time, now.

    That said, it is still possible to renovate/expand in the Heights and make the numbers work, without building a 4,500 sf behemoth.

  • Expensive land means denser housing. Well, it means more expensive housing, whether it’s bigger single family homes or taller multi-family homes. The challenge is to keep some of what makes the Heights fabulous without turning it into a run-down museum. When visitors come to the streets we’ve lived on in the Heights, it’s the big trees, the front lawns, the lack of fences, the people walking dogs & kids on the streets, and reasonable pedestrian amenities that make them smile. Newer housing cuts down trees, takes up yard space, and puts up fences. Forcing people to build bungalow-looking or queen-anne-looking things doesn’t change these facts. Nor does it preserve the stores, restaurants and churches scattered throughout that make the neighborhood walkable.

    Prescriptions for facades, in short, can’t rescue a neighborhood’s personality. Cheap land is what makes little grocery stores and second-hand bookstores thrive. Expensive land and hordes of secular twenty-somethings is what makes historic churches not want to maintain their beautiful but decaying sanctuaries.

    The City of the Heights was originally built with different lot sizes for different classes of people. Mansions on the boulevard for the industrialists, shotgun shacks near the factories north of 20th for the laborers, and a few other sizes for the inbetweens. Trying to keep the whole neighborhood like an upper-middle-class museum of the 1920s is counterproductive. Praise the wealthy lawyers who litter the boulevard with enormous silly looking prestige houses. They did it then, and they’re doing it now, and they contribute money to the local economy. Praise the anguished empty-nesters in in corduroy pants who repair and upgrade bungalows beyond all financial common sense. They make the neighborhood distinctive. Praise the hard working immigrants on the neighborhood’s rough edges: they scare enough of the wealthy lawyers away — keeping land prices a bit lower — to allow for budding restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and other socially desirable but economically dubious enterprises to survive. It’s not clear to me how historic districts particularly help or hinder this mix of people.

  • Chester- Mies said it- one can renovate and enlarge and do it well or build new and do it well. Spec homes are almost never done well and this hood has been spec-ed to death.
    I sympathize with your now having to get a certificate. No part of me thinks we need more faux Victoriana. I honestly think it is far too late to preserve the Heights as an historic area anyway.
    Sebastian says many sensible things. I mourn the loss of socio-economic diversity, too, but the million dollar home people can’t wait for homogenization. A former president of the Heights Association used to declare that we needed to get rid of the “renters” – code for non-whites/non-wealthy.
    Were movin’ on up. The Heights need not bother with a neighborhood watch program. We hire people to keep us safe now.
    When the time comes, I will be happy to go.

  • Ross – preservation laws are passed (or not) by a democratically elected city gov’t and historic designation happens via a democratic process within a neighborhood. Holding up deed restrictions as some kind of fabulously fair way of addressing this while calling preservation laws the opposite is just silly.

    If you had deed restrictions that required demolitions to be approved by your neighbors, you’d have a system much more ripe for abuse.

    And i’ll come back to an important point: this is not some wild experiment. This has been done over and over in other places, and we can look at the results. I’ve been a homeowner in a historic district with laws with some teeth. I suffered the horrors: increasing property values, improvements in the quality of the neighboring houses and businesses, and influx of new money, including great new development – it made life better, and it made me money.

    It seems likes people are arguing about an abstraction about property rights versus a practical question of how one preserves the historic nature of a neighborhood. Historic neighborhoods are a limited resource; if you don’t value that, you’ve got the vastness of the rest of the city to pick from.

  • Demolitions should never require any approval, other than making sure the utilities are disconnected correctly. The idea that my neighbors can tell me that I can’t tear down my own property is revolting, and a complete and utter intrusion on property rights, especially if the restriction is forced on me AFTER I buy the property. Those owners who think that their homes are special and deserve protection are free to deed restrict their own property.

    I object to the concept that I have to move to build my desired home, simply because some group of control freaks thinks they know what’s best for me, or thinks that I have bad taste.

    If the historic district “protections” are enacted, they should not apply to current owners who do not want to abide by them. That gives the current owners the chance to do what they want with their property, while reducing the opportunity for those evil developers to build something “offensive”.

  • Sorry, Ross, but your home next door affects my home’s value so what about MY property rights?
    What if you build your dream home and the person next to you wants to put in a mobile home park – will you welcome them?
    There are a zillion rules for building – zoning, in the desirable Bellaire and West U, deed restrictions, building codes, lending rules, rules about altering the topography of your lot, neighborhood protection ordinances, etc.
    If rules are so heinous, why do people flock to “planned communities.”
    Now calm down with a nice cup of tea.

  • Ross, you are making my point. You’re calling a concept revolting and I’m talking about a practical issue – how do you preserve irreplaceable historic assets? And by assets I mean districts not individual structures.

    Do you have anything practical to add to that question?

  • This again is merely a means to an end by some who believe it will “stop the developers and builders” when in fact if it is put together the way Chapter 42 was, it will probably simply open new loopholes to developers and builders.

    Many of our truly “historic neighborhoods” have already been destroyed by “zero lot lines” and “setback variances” and a multitude of other loopholes that allow anyone and everyone to work around all but the most stringent of deed restrictions.

    I suspect Maryland Manor will probably be put on a list of “protected properties” by our mayor.

    “Your honor, this lawsuit is without merit. This property is a protected property now. It cannot be demolished.”

    Of course with a little luck, Takara So will end up on the list after a certain truly clueless city councilmember who chairs the city council committee does a favor for someone not realizing what Takara So is.

    And maybe then everyone will finally realize how City Hall works. And why it doesn’t work.

  • There is much rational comment on your site about this issue.As a Heights East owner I was shocked when I recently received notice of the proposed Ordinance with the deletion of the 90-day rule. After doing as much quick study as possible and trying to catch up on this fast moving issue I attended the public hearing on August 10, 2010. I quickly realized that the anger I feel is widespread and the public officials in charge of the meeting and the issue appeared to be clearly partisan and who where there to simply “weather the storm” of angry and shocked property owners while defending this unfair and unjust ordinance at every turn. Question: Can property rights be stolen away this easily in Texas in 2010? They even stated categorically that regardless of any current input the 90-day rule would NOT be amended in the ordinance. This is the major issue that offends most owners who oppose the measure. It was a shameful display in many ways including screening questions from the audience ( my written question was never read) in spite of promising to answer them all. All three neighborhoods of the Heights voted overwhelmingly by a show of hands ( a poor method that they happily defended )to have a re-petitioning of the ordinance by mail. After seeing the dismissive and clearly biased attitudes of the major players for the city in attendance I don’t trust these people. I think they are setting the city up to spend a fortune in legal fees defending lawsuits for years and years to come. I hope this carries enough potential political penalty for elected officials that it will be stopped but as just one small owner it feels like rage against the machine. I ask again: Can property rights can be stolen away this easily in Texas in 2010?