Historic bricks of Freedmen's Town, Fourth Ward. Photo by Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public Media
Historic bricks of Freedmen's Town, Fourth Ward. Photo by Lucio Vasquez, Houston Public Media

The City of Houston is trying to find another way to preserve the history of some of its neighborhoods. The city’s planning and development department is proposing the city add what’s known as a Conservation District to its Preservation Ordinance.

City council approved on Wednesday to set a public hearing date for February 22, to allow for public comment on the proposed ordinance.

Currently, the city can designate areas as historic or heritage districts, but for some communities, meeting those designation requirements can be challenging. Margaret Wallace Brown is the Director of the city’s planning department and told Houston Matters that a conservation designation gives communities a voice when it comes to development in their neighborhoods.

“What we’re talking about is the ability for a neighborhood to determine what’s important to it, and then the city can regulate it based on the community input,” she said.

Conservation Districts provide neighborhoods with an easier route towards protecting the character of the neighborhood which would not be the case if the neighborhood was trying to obtain a historic designation.

To designate an area as a historic district requires community members to get a collection of the properties they want designated and at-least 50% of the properties must be designated as contributing structures to the district Itself. Then, 67% of property owners must agree to have the proposed area designated.

“Getting that property ownership response is really difficult, particularly in neighborhoods where there may be a lower ownership rate and a higher rental rate,” said Wallce Brown.

Houston has 22 Historic Districts that include Houston Heights, Old Sixth Ward, and Cortlandt Place.

Wallace Brown said when it comes to historic districts a lot of challenges are faced around what is regulated. Any improvements made to the exterior of the structure has to go through a process with the planning department. Conservation Districts have more say of what the community members want regulated.

Under the proposed district, community members can choose between 19 items to regulate that ranges from massing, minimum lot size, lot width, lot dept, front, side, and rear setbacks, building height, demolition of significant buildings, driveways, or architectural style.

“The beauty of Conservation Districts is that they are tailored fit for the community,” said Wallce Brown. “Of these 19 potential things they could regulate a community will pick five, six, or however many they choose to – and each conservation district across the city is different unlike historic districts that regulate the same thing in each district.”

Wallace Brown said a lot of older communities in Houston no longer have active deed restrictions. So a conservation district designation gives them an opportunity to determine what’s important to them in their neighborhood without having to go through deed restrictions or homeowner association requirements.

She said communities like Independence Heights and Freedmen’s Town, which is also a Heritage District, are good examples of neighborhoods that would benefit from a conservation designation.

Heritage Districts are areas where communities can protect the rights of way. This allows neighborhoods to work with the city to approve art installations and take care of the streets and sidewalks.

“There are other communities that have a historic nature to them, but may not have as much contribution material left,” she said. Residents can go to LetsTalkHouston.org to submit comments. City Council will vote on Wednesday to set a public hearing date for residents to weigh-in on the proposed designation.