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Don’t Mess With Texas: 3 Ways Cities Encourage Preservation Using Zoning

October 25, 2018
By: Jason Holte

How do cities approach creating their historic zoning districts? What about the individual buildings that get identified as being deemed important to save?

Historic districts are designed to protect areas and structures that are culturally significant, but have you ever wondered how these districts are created and maintained at a local level? Often, zoning is the answer.

Zoning - Tarrant County Courthouse in Forth Worth, Texas
Front view of Tarrant County Courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas at night

Let’s start by looking at preservation-related rules. A lot of times, the level of preservation can be linked to the existing characteristics of an area and its level of local organization. The quality of older street patterns, buildings, placement of parks, and town squares combine to create the framework desired by preservationists. So, how does this work in the actual zoning?

Cities design their rules, processes for gaining approvals, and enforcement practices using multiple strategies. There are long-term plans that set targets with a focus on having preservation program goals as measured by the number of designated properties, planners dedicated, and historic districts identified.

The reason? Economic benefits. Reinvestment, property values, and jobs are just a few of the identified reasons that cities want to promote preservation. A typical list of the reasons behind preservation goals (as cited by governmental agencies) includes:

  •       To provide opportunity
  •       To aid in revitalization
  •       To improve property values
  •       To enhance a city’s historic attractions for tourists and visitors
  •       To educate future generations on local history

Cities use plans, ordinance rules, historic districts, and conservation districts to codify preservation. Controlling demolition, developing guidelines for design and enforcing rules for compliance are all part of the preservation recipe.

While design requirements go hand-in-hand with preservation in districts, they do not necessarily preclude new development. In fact, some districts could fall under both ‘preserve’ and ‘promote’, with the emphasis being on the type of development viewed as being a fit for a specific zoning district. Let’s take a look at how three of the largest cities in Texas manage preservation efforts using zoning districts and other methods.


Dallas has an overlay zoning district governing preservation, and the city has added a demolition delay overlay district at the local level as well. Property owners may also benefit from the city’s tax incentive program for the rehabilitation of city landmarks or structures in Landmark Districts. Landmarks include Adolphus Hotel, the Magnolia Building, and the Wales Apartments.

On the residential front, a major event that helped shape the city was the late-1970s rezoning of Old East Dallas, a 120-block area spanning over 700 acres, to single-family use only. The term “backzoning” was cited in various published documents, including a 1977 editorial cited by Dallas Architecture Blog. The editorial expressed that the reason for rezoning to multifamily after World War II was to house more people, but that population boom never materialized. Instead, property values dropped. According to the editorial, “The multifamily zoning[…] destabilized the area. Property values near the land zoned for apartments dropped, and homeowners began having difficulty getting loans for home repairs.” It goes on to say, “Stability in the neighborhoods is the greatest factor needed to attract money and new homeowners, and backzoning would provide that.”

This significant preservation effort, including forming the group Preservation Dallas, has created a neighborhood known for its architectural heritage and advocacy. The zoning is not restricted to just single-family homes today, but safeguards have been put in place to retain the architecture.

Fort Worth

Fort Worth also largely relies upon overlay zoning districts to protect its city’s buildings and places. There is a demolition delay overlay similar to Dallas, and additional zoning covers a conservation and highly significant endangered overlay district, as well as historic and cultural districts. The Stockyards Historic area has its own type of zoning code.

Additionally, Historic Fort Worth publishes its annual Most Endangered Places list to identify the historic buildings and public spaces most at risk of being torn down. According to the most recent list available, The Grand High Court of Heroines of Jericho and the Ellis Pecan Building are among the most endangered historic structures in the city.

San Antonio

Like Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio also uses zoning to identify historic districts and landmarks. However, the city’s Office of Historic Preservation also identifies specific missions like Mission San Jose and Mission San Juan as being protected under the Mission Preservation Overlay District.

San Antonio also deploys River Improvement Overlay (RIO) and viewshed districts with a focus on preserving the San Antonio River. These include design standards and guidelines for properties near the river. There are several RIO districts with varying reasons for being. As an example, one states its purpose is to “maintain open space and the natural character of the river,” while also being used “to encourage mixed-use redevelopment of the urban character.”

Learn More

Cities often allow property owners to initiate the process of setting aside a property or area for preservation with rules around eligibility. The approval process usually starts with an application and moves up to city council review and approval for a new zoning district focused on preservation.

Zoning districts designed to preserve can change over time. Sometimes they grow in size, and in other cases, new districts get established. As buildings age, they can also become candidates for gaining historic status. Once a preservation ordinance is adopted, it may regulate related issues such as historic site tax exemption programs, designation of properties, architectural review, penalties, and appeals. Whatever the case may be, zoning remains a powerful tool that local governments can use to preserve historic areas and structures.

Our thanks to Zonability President & Founder Leigh Budlong for contributing this post! Click here to learn more about how the DMP platform can help you understand city zoning, a new add-on with base and overlay districts*, and over 300 additional characteristics impacting parcels.

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