From its inception Houston has been a city designed for commerce. The free market place is respected and the city has done well because of its relationship with business. Taking advantage of opportunities and the wise use of resources may keep commerce flowing and profits growing, but it can make the preservation of historic buildings problematic. Houston Public Radio’s Rod Rice reports.
Houston has an ordinance that allows property owners to keep their historic buildings from ever being torn down. But in a market driven city the owner of a historically significant building can demolish it. That decision is usually based on sound business reasons. Preservationists have few tools in their kit to stop such razings. Even getting a building placed on the National Register of Historic Places isn’t enough.
“That’s one of the myths of the National Register.”
David Bush is with the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. He says being on the National Register alone won’t keep a building standing.
“The Ashland House Tea Room over in the Heights, which was just demolished in January, was listed on the National Register. What the National Register does is sets the criteria for what are considered historic buildings and how they can qualify for the tax incentives for rehabilitation.”
Bush says the bottom line for organizations like the Preservation Alliance is that that they have to use the power of persuasion in an effort to save buildings in private hands. Those tax incentives are designed to help do that.
“It’s a 20-percent federal income tax credit, there are also some smaller state incentives, and the city of Houston offers some property tax abatement on city property taxes, so it all adds up to a fairly substantial package. It’s really designed to encourage property owners of commercial properties to renovate their historic buildings.”
Public persuasion also has a role in preservation efforts. A case in point is the River Oaks Shopping Center on either side of Gray along Sheppard. The Art Moderne shopping center was built in 1937 and was one of the first automobile centered suburban shopping centers. The Texas Historical Commission has determined it is eligible for listing on the National Register, but occupants have been told to vacate by the end of the year to make way for a large book store and a parking garage.
With no legal recourse to keep a property owner from doing what he or she wishes, Bush says public opinion, which if not demonstratively successful, can at least be encouraging.
“With this project it has been particularly encouraging because we have never seen the kind of public response. People are very upset. We have an online petition and right now it’s got just shy of 25,000 names on it.”
David Bush says success in his line of work can be difficult to achieve even with a city administration like Mayor Bill White’s that supports historic preservation. He says that property values, especially inside the loop, are so high that it is very profitable to get the most out of each piece of land and what property owner doesn’t what to profit from his property.