The Historic and Design Review Commission may be contemplating its own preservation at its meeting today. By the time it convenes again on the first Wednesday of June, HDRC’s future composition and function may be radically altered by a City Council that has bought into developers’ claims that the citizen group exercises too much power over local projects. `See The MashUp, May 2-9.` The word on the street last week was that it’s all over but the scheduling. The mayor’s office says it won’t come before council this week, but credible rumors suggest May 24. It’s one of the items outgoing councilmembers — including HDRC nemesis Richard Perez — have expressed an interest in addressing before they leave the dais for good.
According to the Planning Department’s request for HDRC changes, submitted to council’s B Session two weeks ago, on average the HDRC reviews 54 percent of eligible cases, sending only 17 percent of those to subcommittee. “Overall, approximately 98 percent of cases are approved with the HDRC accepting staff’s recommendation,” says the Request for Action.
Those statistics don’t make HDRC sound terribly dysfunctional, but two of the City’s recent pet projects brought the commission into the council’s crosshairs: the Convention Center hotel, and the Main Plaza redevelopment, both of which went before HDRC numerous times before they proceeded to council. While Mayor Hardberger and Councilman Perez agree those two projects are better for the changes pushed by HDRC, they also admit that HDRC’s attitude during the heated Main Plaza negotiations crystallized their frustration with the group. “It probably isn’t good to shake your finger, as one of them did, at the City Manager,” says Hardberger. “They don’t run City Council, City Council runs them.”
Should the HDRC as you know it face an ignominious death, friendly fire will also be responsible. Not long before the mayor’s Main Plaza plans ran afoul of HDRC, Justin Arecchi was raising a ruckus about his ice-cream shop’s eviction from the River Walk. This became a rallying cry for another River Walk pioneer, Jim Cullum, jazz master and proprietor of the Landing. The result, after a swiftly aborted attempt at proposing a ban on formula restaurants along the river, was the Mayor’s Advisory Panel, which two weeks ago proposed that the City resurrect the old River Walk Commission. The new River Commission would have seven at-large members nominated by organizations with a stake in downtown; its advisory role to the council would be “superior in all ways as long as it is on or in near facility of the river,” says Hardberger.
In return for this modest gain, HDRC will be sacrificed ... er, trimmed, to seven at-large members and sternly reminded of its advisory role. Although some councilmembers have expressed concern about eliminating the council-appointed seats on HDRC, Hardberger thinks he has the votes. City staff would also pull a lot of cases from HDRC’s purview. Examples the mayor gave include a Westside restaurant that wanted to add two more bathrooms, and painting requests. After all, says the Mayor, developing a theme, HDRC is supposed to advise staff, not the other way around.
Nonetheless, MashUp is no less worried now than two weeks ago that we’re gaining another committee with little teeth and oversight over a very small, albeit crucial, part of the city in exchange for weaker development protection citywide. More bureaucracy, but less public input. And the move to all at-large seats feels distinctly reminiscent of the old paternal Good Government League.
The clear winner under the current proposals would be City planning staff, who would have to defer a lot less to HDRC, and by extension the public, and the new Downtown Operations committee — which is run by Paula Stallcup and overseen by Assistant City Manager and Mayor’s Advisory Panel-member Penny Postoak-Ferguson.
The public, on the other hand, may soon feel like HDRC Chair Xavier Gonzalez: “You would imagine that if the Council really wanted things to be improved, they’d ask us, what should we do, how do we do this,” Gonzalez told the Current May 11. “No one asked us. In fact, I just got a call from `the office of the` city manager two days ago saying they want to schedule something really quick, is the way he put it, to get our input.”