Historic Preservation Gets Muscle

Houston could soon have some tougher development restrictions in place as the city council considers beefing up protection for historic districts and deed-restricted neighborhoods. Laurie Johnson reports.

Houston's reputation for favoring developers and new construction could soon take a hit. The city that's known for its lackadaisical approach to neighborhood planning is poised to approve tighter restrictions for building in Houston's 16 historic districts.

Mayor Annise Parker says she's not neutral on the issue.

"I live in a historic district, I live in a National Register city-landmarked home, I invested in the Old 6th Ward which is the only protected historic district in the city of Houston. I want the option to extend the protections that we have in the 6th Ward to other historic districts."

Property owners in historic districts must submit development plans to the city's Archaeological and Historical Commission, which decides whether to approve the building changes.

"If you're building in a historic district, the expectation is that you will build something that in mass and scale and general appearance fits into the district. If you want to come and put a big metal ultra-modern townhome in the middle of the district you will not receive a certificate of appropriateness."

However, prior to this week, even if your development was not approved, you could wait 90 days and build it anyway.
Which is why councilmembers voted to suspend development in historic districts until the end of the year.
This is Jolanda Jones.

"You can't tear anything down and you can't get a new designation of historic preservation district, is that accurate? So it's not like right now we are deciding..."

Mayor Parker: "We're not deciding anything but a pause in the action."

The mayor also wants more aggressive enforcement for deed-restricted neighborhoods.

"We actually have a pilot now of a deed restriction database, we're testing it, I'm very excited. In order to really do enforcement, you have to have a tool where the city can go to a database, click on an address and know instantly whether there's a deed restriction or not."

While people like the mayor, who own historic homes, may be happy — many others, including builders and real estate developers are concerned about new restrictions.

Mayor Parker has said she'd like to introduce a tougher preservation ordinance by September — which no doubt means a vigorous debate over the next few months.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...