A Houston Chronicle editorial pushes for historic preservation districts

When sociologists talk about urban zoning, Houston is often cited as an example of a city that has had and has little zoning. However, there is a recent debate about instituting the city’s first six historic preservation districts. The Houston Chronicle wrote an editorial supporting these districts as they only affect a small part of the city:

In a council meeting earlier this month, one council member compared city restrictions on property rights to Gestapo tactics.

People, please: We’re not talking about seizure of private property. We’re talking about bungalows, Victorians and Dutch colonials. The new rules don’t say that you can no longer build McMansions or townhouses in Houston — just that you can’t plop them into a historic district. That leaves 99 percent of Houston wide-open.

Tomorrow, council will vote whether to accept the maps for the six most controversial districts, all of which are in the Heights and Montrose.

All six districts survived a postcard referendum that could have obliterated their historic status completely; the only change to the maps is the removal of a single commercial property from Montrose Commons.

Opponents have argued that historic designation will hurt neighborhood property values, but that strains credibility.

It sounds like this battle over historic districts is quite similar to other historic district battles: are there limits to what property owners should be able to do? And as is often the case, these historic districts are proposed because some of these older homes are being torn down to make way for newer homes, the larger ones which are dubbed McMansions.

But the larger issue may be neighborhood change: just how much should any neighborhood be allowed to change in a short period of time? Buildings in a historic district are protected because they are older (perhaps at least 50 years old?). But these questions can also pop up in newer neighborhoods: should a religious building or a park or a gas station be allowed to be built on the corner at the edge of the neighborhood? Should a set of townhouses be built the next street over? What happens if more traffic starts driving down the main street in the neighborhood? The same people who would want the right to build a McMansion in an older part of town after tearing down an old home would also probably not desire an apartment building constructed next door or a garbage facility built a block away.

Where exactly you draw the line between these competing interests is not an easy decision but one that must be made by individual communities.

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