Former lawmaker takes local battle over historic zoning to the Capitol

What began as a local dispute over the demolition of a 1910 house has escalated into a statewide battle over what makes a building historic — and who gets to decide.

House at 405 W. 14th St. in Austin on April 12, 2017.

In February, lobbyist and former lawmaker Burt Solomons was on the verge of losing a fight with the city of Austin over the demolition of a century-old house a few blocks from the Capitol.

The house serves as the office of Solomons’ lobbying firm. Facing costly repairs, Solomons and his business partner were exploring the possibility of tearing it down and selling the valuable downtown property or constructing a new office building in its place.

“We didn’t think it was a big deal, then all of a sudden it became a major production,” said Solomons, a Republican who represented the Dallas area in the House for more than a decade until he stepped down in 2013.

Rather than go through the expensive and lengthy process of opposing the home’s historic designation at the city level — which he felt certain would end in defeat — Solomons turned to a friend at the Capitol for help. He brought his situation to the attention of state Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, who promptly filed legislation to limit local governments’ authority to make historical designations throughout Texas.

Now what began as a local dispute has escalated into a statewide battle over what makes a building historic — and who gets to decide.

Homeowners in the nearby residential area rallied against the plans when Solomons sought a demolition permit from the city. Removing the home, they said, would mean losing a key piece of Austin’s identity.

The house on 14th Street was built in 1910 by Ida Tobin, a prominent widow at the time known for her philanthropy and lavish parties, after the death of her husband, JJ Tobin, a successful Austin businessman and chemist.

“This house was the center of the Austin cultural scene in the early 1900s,” said Cynthia O’Keefe, Tobin’s great-great granddaughter, at a February hearing of the Austin Historic Landmark Commission. “It is still a beautiful place that reminds us of what Austin was like when elegant family homes lined the streets around the Capitol.”

The city board agreed, unanimously voting to initiate proceedings to label it a historic landmark, a designation that would trigger restrictive zoning requirements and severely limit any changes to the structure. The Austin Historic Preservation Office did not respond to a request for comment.

Solomons said he sought Elkins’ help because he wants historical commissions throughout the state to follow minimum standards in making designations.

“All this bill is trying to do is say we ought to have some objective history and facts here before we sit there and take away somebody’s property rights and hold them hostage for months on end,” he said.

While he recognized the value of the Tobin family’s contributions in the Austin community, he said they did not qualify as historic.

“All they did is basically build the house and she continued her work raising money for charities, and threw parties here to raise money for charities,” Solomons said. “But that is not historic. We do that in Dallas, and San Antonio, and Houston all the time — are we going to hold every one of those houses to be historic?”

Elkins’ bill has pleased property owners who believe historical commissions have run amok, using a tactic the Houston lawmaker described as the “historicizing” of a home’s former occupants to prevent much-needed redevelopment in core urban areas.

“A structure is either historical or its not — that’s the bottom line,” Elkins said at a Tuesday legislative hearing. “And it should not be based on what the owner may or may not do with his or her property.”

The bill, which would shorten the window of time that local commissions have to make zoning decisions, also narrows the definition they can use to declare a property historic and requires a three-fourths vote to approve any designation.

Those changes have alarmed preservationists.

The arbitrary, outdated standards the bill imposes, they say, hurt efforts to save structures related to people whose historic contributions remain largely unrecognized. They also say the measure punishes cities in other parts of the state whose ordinances haven’t created the kind of acrimony Austin’s have generated. 

“Austin is not a great example of a well-managed preservation program,” Evan Thompson, the director of Preservation Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit, told lawmakers at the legislative hearing. “The rest of the state should not have to pay the price for those very bad examples.”

Shannon Miller, the director of San Antonio’s office of historic preservation, said that the proposed legislation threatened a successful and well-established preservation program in her city. 

“The proposed eligibility criteria ignore community-driven aspects of heritage such as local culture, building traditions and archeological practices that have shaped our communities,’” she said.

According to a recent review by the Texas Historical Commission, Miller said, San Antonio is responsible for a third of the total historical designations in the state.

But with rare exceptions, Miller said, the city made historical designations either at the owner’s request or with their approval.

Solomons acknowledged that the abuse he believes is happening in Austin may not be a problem in other cities. But he said “some minimal objectivity” in the process was necessary everywhere.

“Here in Austin, we are at the mercy of some people who believe very subjectively what is history and what is not,” he said.

Disclosure: The Texas Historical Commission has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.