City DopeNews

The Battle of Buena Vista

The Athens-Clarke Commission may have approved a historic district in Buena Vista last week, but the extremely divisive year-long campaigns for and against preserving the neighborhood will march on for another week.

“It was really mean-spirited all the way around, wasn’t it?” said Commissioner Mike Hamby. Yes it was, Mike. 

As reported on In the Loop last Thursday, Mayor Nancy Denson said she is “keeping my options open.” She could veto the district—in which case commissioners could almost certainly find one more vote to override it—sign it or, most likely, let it take effect without her signature. She has until next Tuesday to decide.

In doing so, Denson is siding with the Realtors, developers and rental property owners who spoke against the historic district at the March 5 commission meeting. Their arguments: That Buena Vista isn’t really historic because the houses are just your average 1890s cottages, not grand mansions like the Taylor-Grady House. That new housing is needed for the middle class (as if families that made the local median income of $41,000 lived in $300,000 homes). That most neighborhood residents oppose the district, and a small number are trying to impose their will on the majority.

We don’t really know for sure how widespread support for a historic district is among Buena Vista homeowners. Both supporters and opponents conducted their own surveys with, as one would expect, wildly varying results. Some claimed never to have received a survey. 

The entire process was sort of botched from the beginning, in large part due to budget cuts in the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department that forced residents to hire their own historic preservation consultants. “I did not feel comfortable at all, nor did my colleagues who support historic preservation feel comfortable with the designation report we received,” Commissioner Kathy Hoard said. As a result, Hoard said she will push for changes to the designation process, such as requiring public hearings in neighborhoods and mailing out literature so everyone gets the same information at the same time.

Misinformation was really at the heart of all the animosity. Hoard recalled hearing from an elderly resident who opposed the district because someone had told her ACC would send inspectors to her house to tell her what color to paint it. “He or she was misinformed or knowingly gave wrong information to frighten this woman,” Hoard said.

Another trope repeated by historic district opponents is that designation would outlaw modern-looking, environmentally efficient houses like the beloved Lori Bork-Newcomer homes on Pulaski Street. Sharon Bradley, a member of the ACC Historic Preservation Commission, refuted that claim. The HPC has, in fact, approved modern structures in historic districts, including a building next to University Tower downtown. “We approve expansions, additions, new construction in historic districts every single day,” Bradley told the commission. Tom Ellis’ DuBose Avenue addition (detailed in Athens Rising on p. 7) illustrates why intown development needs to be closely regulated.

The real issue, as usual, is money. Of course Realtors and builders want as few restrictions as possible on development in Buena Vista, one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city. Don’t blame them for wanting to make a living. But at the same time as they fought a historic district, they were marketing Buena Vista properties as being in a “historic district” (though without the protection a real one offers, it won’t be for long). Both sides argued at times that historic designation would both raise and lower property values, depending on whether it suited their cause. The truth is historic districts increase property values (there’s also an associated assessment freeze) but not as much as replacing an 800 square-foot house with a 2,500 square-foot one would.

Denson is technically correct when she said that “affordability is irrelevant to historic preservation.” But supporters saw a historic district as the best way to halt their traditionally working-class neighborhood’s gentrification. “It’s not right for these houses to be destroyed or radically altered to cater only to those who can afford a large house,” resident Deborah Stanley told the commission. 

However, Jared York (yes, the builder who cut down the big oak on Talmadge Drive) did make a good point when he gave commissioners a little lesson about supply and demand. A lot of people—many of them with money—want to live intown, and the market is responding to that. 

In order to grow, Athens needs higher density in its urban neighborhoods, and we’ve never been able to come to grips with it. Exhibit A is the failure of TDRs. It was easy to find places where we want less density, like the rural “green belt” on the outskirts of the county, but impossible to find anyplace intown where people might accept more density. If we’re going to resolve any of the issues the Buena Vista Historic District raised, we need to resolve that contradiction first.

Yay Bipartisanship!: A bill that would let ACC lift a state law barring retail beer and wine sales within 100 yards of a college campus—thus paving the way for a grocery store in the development proposed for the SunTrust property downtown—cleared the state House overwhelmingly last week. Reps. Chuck Williams (R-Athens), Spencer Frye (D-Athens) and Regina Quick (R-Athens) all cosponsored House Bill 517. How refreshing it was to see our local delegation working together for a change—something that seemed impossible before Quick and Frye won election less than a year ago.

Bottleworks’ New Owners: Another story we broke online last week was the Atlanta-based Parkside Partners’ purchase of the struggling and foreclosed-on Bottleworks development on Prince Avenue. The firm, which specializes in adaptive reuse, doesn’t plan any major exterior changes, but is making interior and signage improvements to lure new businesses. “We’re hoping to find the types of tenants neighbors want to walk to,” principle Kyle Jenks says. 

ACC Wins Stormwater Case: The unpopular stormwater utility fee, AKA the “rain tax,” is here to stay. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled unanimously March 4 that the fee is a fee, not an unconstitutional tax, as Quick and David Ellison, the lawyers for Homewood Hills shopping center owner Howard Scott, had claimed in a lawsuit. They countersued after ACC sued to collect more than $72,000 that Scott owed the county; he hadn’t paid the quarterly fee since its inception in 2005. 

ACC’s victory is actually good for property owners. Stormwater infrastructure improvements are federally mandated, and paying for them with a fee, rather than property taxes, means tax-exempt institutions like the University of Georgia must pay their fair share. The alternative is to raise taxes on home and business owners.