The most significant reform was a "no means no" provision that prevents property owners from demolishing historic buildings in historic districts if a city commission has denied their request. Previously, owners could proceed with demolition after 90 days even if the commission denied their request, a "waiver" that, according to preservationists, rendered the ordinance largely toothless.
Although Mayor Annise Parker won a major battle for preservation, an amendment to her proposal means the war is expected to continue in many of the historic districts that may now be thrust into a process that could jeopardize the protected status they worked so hard to gain.
Parker acknowledged as much on Wednesday, saying she now planned to go into the city and fight the preservation battles in each neighborhood.
"It is possible under this ordinance to have historic districts have a reconsideration and break off and some parts of those historic districts go away," she said. "I'm going to do my best to make sure that doesn't happen."
Some residents of those neighborhoods, however, said they will do their best to make sure it does.
"In a lot of ways, our work has just begun," said Bill Baldwin, a Heights-area realtor and founding member of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston.
Law called 'burdensome'
Individual property owners should be able to choose to preserve the buildings they own, Baldwin said. He also warned that there will be significantly less investment in historic districts because demolition or even remodeling will be more expensive, and they may become less welcoming to new people.
"I have concerns on my neighborhood's continued ability to be progressive and meet the needs of a growing and diverse city," he said. "This is very burdensome for young couples, older couples or others who are facing other alternate choices for their habitation."
Baldwin said he planned to begin to immediately gather support to rescind the historic status of his neighborhood in the Heights.
Council on Wednesday made that reconsideration process easier in an amendment to Parker's proposal. Those who want their neighborhood to lose its historic designation must collect the signatures of 10 percent of property owners and turn them in to the city within 30 days. That will trigger a public meeting and a survey from the city's Planning and Development Department. If 51 percent of property owners oppose the designation, the planning director must either recommend to City Council reducing the size of the district or eliminating it. Council is not bound to follow the recommendation.
Becoming a new district will require the support of at least 67 percent of property owners in a given area, as well as the eventual approval of City Council after additional vetting.
While many preservation enthusiasts were ecstatic that the city now has stronger protections in place, some expressed fears that the ordinance had been watered down so much that it will be too easy for districts to be undone.
"I'm feeling very good for the city and very concerned for our districts in the Heights," said Jonathan Smulian, an urban planner and preservationist. "Now we virtually have to start again."
Despite the saber-rattling on those likely neighborhood battles, as well as others that may be fought by individual property owners who resist the new limitations on what they can do with their homes, council chambers largely broke out in a celebratory mood at the ordinance's passage.
City Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who led the charge and brokered negotiations with council members and industry leaders that initially opposed the changes, grew emotional after the law passed and invoked the memory of the late Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley. Lovell said she stood next to Tinsley several years ago as the last billboard came down under a law Tinsley had backed to beautify the city.
"I watched the tears roll down her cheeks, and I wondered what it would feel like to make such a difference," Lovell said. "Now, I've come pretty close to it."
After the meeting, Parker said, "We were able to bring forward a compromise that gives us, for the first time in Houston's history, a real, 'no means no' preservation ordinance."
Although Parker seemed to be facing a close vote last week, only three council members voted against the measure: Mike Sullivan, C.O. Bradford and Jarvis Johnson.