After nearly two years of discussion, the Athens-Clarke County Commission could vote as soon as Nov. 3 on a new historic district for the western half of downtown.
The push to preserve the West End, as it’s known, began in January 2019, when a split commission declared a moratorium on demolitions in response to First Methodist Church’s plans to demolish the Saye Building for a parking lot. Other churches and some other property owners also opposed the new district, so a decision was put off last November and again in June because the COVID-19 pandemic prevented more public hearings.
The ACC Planning Department held a virtual forum Oct. 5 to discuss the latest plans for the district. Senior planner Bruce Lonnee reassured property owners that they would still be able to develop on vacant or parking lots, as well as redevelop non-contributing (or non-historic) structures, with approval from the Historic Preservation Commission. In the existing historic district covering the eastern side of downtown, the HPC approved two new buildings on either side of University Tower as well as the Georgia Heights development on Broad Street between Lumpkin and Hull streets because those designs respected the historic character of nearby buildings, Lonnee said.
However, the district would provide protection for historic buildings in the district, which would cover roughly the area between Broad and Dougherty and Lumpkin and Pulaski under a scaled-back version that excludes several churches endorsed by the preservation group Historic Athens.
“It’s protection from bad choices our neighbors might make, as well as sometimes bad decisions we might make ourselves,” said historic preservation planner Amber Eskew.
The proposed district includes the Hot Corner, the African-American business district during the Jim Crow area centered around the Morton Theatre, built in 1912. Automotive businesses moved in during the 1950s and ‘60s, and the area is coming full circle in some respects; for example, a former gas station now houses the Black-owned Dawg Gone Good BBQ.
Bill Berryman, a former ACC attorney hired by First Methodist, called the process “adversarial” and said it sets a bad precedent for the county to create a historic district over the objections of property owners.
Tommy Valentine, the executive director of Historic Athens, acknowledged that all historic districts are to some extent controversial but said, “Once you remove that ring [of churches], that idea that a majority of property owners are against it or the process is adversarial—that really goes away,”
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