A new historic district covering the west side of downtown Athens will help protect culturally important structures from redevelopment, two Athens-Clarke County commissioners and historic preservation experts said at a town hall meeting last week, but some remain unconvinced of the benefits.
Commissioners Tim Denson and Melissa Link hosted the town hall meeting Jan. 21 at Flicker Theatre and Bar, along with Historic Athens Executive Director Tommy Valentine and Cari Goetcheus, a University of Georgia professor whose students conducted research on the proposed district.
While downtown is currently a national historic district, that offers no protection except from federal highway and construction projects, Valentine said. Downtown east of Lumpkin is already protected by a local historic district, but the Hot Corner—the historically African-American commercial district at Washington and Hull streets—and the heart of the local music scene on West Washington remain vulnerable to development. “If there’s any place in Athens that deserves to be a local historic district, full stop, this is it,” Valentine said.
The west end of downtown is also notable for its varied architecture centered around transportation, Goetcheus said. It was more working-class than the east end, with flea markets, gas stations, an Art Deco bus station that’s now Chuck’s Fish and tire shops like the one now occupied by Creature Comforts. Historic preservationists now consider those kinds of everyday buildings worth protecting because “they mean a lot to our culture,” she said.
Today, though, Link said she’s worried that downtown is “becoming primarily a playground for students, and the people who put it on the map are increasingly being pushed out.” Owners of the new luxury student high-rises downtown want corporate tenants in their commercial spaces, and would rather let them sit empty than lower rents to a price local businesses can afford. In addition, “they don’t have the character folks in the creative class are seeking,” she said.
When the GameDay condo building was built almost 20 years ago, it prompted new design guidelines for downtown, but those don’t go far enough, Link said. Something like the UnCommon development at Lumpkin and Dougherty could be built by right, with no permission from the local government needed. And growth is headed to the west end, she said, pointing to plans for a 350-bedroom development just west of downtown, where a Day’s Inn now stands. “I’m not so happy about something so huge and out of character, but this is what the law allows,” she said.
Link and Valentine emphasized, though, that a historic district won’t prevent new development from happening. It just gives the local government more oversight about what that development will look like. “It can be very modern if it still fits,” Link said. Valentine cited a planned new building next to University Tower that will include a small Target as an example of a development that passed muster with the Historic Preservation Commission.
About half of the 40 or so people who attended the meeting raised their hands when asked if they support the district, but a handful opposed it and several still had questions. If a historic district can’t keep out chains and still allows big buildings, local music fan Kathy Harr asked, then what’s the point? One downtown property owner, lawyer David Montgomery, said African-American property owners would be harmed financially. (Denson and Valentine countered that historic districts come with tax benefits and grant opportunities.) On the other hand, Drew Dekle, who owns the Flicker building, said he’s “100% in favor” of the proposal, which is scheduled for a commission vote in June.