Historic districts, whether locally or nationally designated, are geographically or thematically-defined areas, possessing high concentrations (usually over 50%) of buildings, structures and objects united by the significance of their history and/or architecture. They are a collective body. Within the district, a particular property is either “contributing” or “non-contributing” to the historic character of the district.
The National Register of Historic Places recognizes historic districts across the country that meet these standards. According to the National Park Service there are over 11,000 designated National Register Historic Districts in the country, including 19 in Austin, such as Congress Avenue, Clarksville, Rainey Street, Barton Springs, and the Delwood Duplex neighborhood (NRHP, City of Austin, Wikipedia). The City of Austin requires that the Historic Landmark Commission review all exterior building, demolition and relocation permits for properties within National Register Historic Districts. However, the commission can only recommend, not require, steps to protect these historic properties.
Local Historic Districts take this a step further. Cities with historic zoning ordinances, such as Austin, can designate local historic districts in which the contributing historic buildings are protected from demolition and radical alteration by a public review process. Districts may also choose to regulate the design of additions and new construction to maintain the district’s high-quality standards. Because of this, the designation process requires the signatures of a majority of the district’s property owners. A set of district-specific Design Standards, based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings, outline the criteria and process by which the city judges whether alterations and additions are “appropriate.” Property owners in Local Historic Districts must obtain a Certificate of Appropriateness from the City of Austin Historic Landmark Commission (website) when undertaking any construction project covered by the Local Historic District’s Design Standards. These Design Standards also act as a guide for district residents to understand how to protect their historic resources and build new construction in a quality worthy of the district. There are currently 3 Local Historic Districts in Austin: Hyde Park, Castle Hill, and Harthan Street (City of Austin).
City of Austin Local Historic Districts
The City of Austin ordinance and administrative rules outlining local historic districts further define these terms.
To contribute to a local historic district in Austin, a building must:
- be at least 50 years old §25-11-213(c)(1)
- have been built during the period of significance for the district and retain its appearance from that time. An altered structure may be considered a contributing structure if the alterations are minor and the structure retains its historic appearance and contributes to the overall visual and historic integrity of the district. §25-2-350
To qualify for designation as a local historic district, the following conditions must be met:
- at least 51 percent of the principal structures within the proposed district must be contributing § 25-2-352
- at least 51 percent of the owners of the land, by land area, in the proposed district; or at least 51 percent of the owners of individual properties in the proposed district must consent to the designation § 25-2-242
The proposed district, in consultation with a preservation professional, must present the following application items (via City of Austin):
- Context and Narrative History of the District
- Tax Parcel maps and maps showing district boundaries, original subdivision boundaries, contributing and non-contributing buildings
- Survey form for every building within the district, including photographs, determination of contributing or non-contributing status, legal description, current owner name and address, and tax parcel identification number, and architectural information for all contributing buildings
- Preservation Plan outlining the goals of the local historic district and the Design Standards