The Athens-Clarke County Commission approved a historic district for western downtown Tuesday night that one commissioner called “our last chance to preserve the creative culture that put Athens on the map.”
The Western Downtown Historic District, spearheaded by Commissioner Melissa Link, covers roughly an area bordered by Dougherty, Lumpkin, Broad and Pulaski streets. The eastern side of downtown is already protected by a historic district.
The new district includes part of the Hot Corner, where Black-owned businesses flourished in the first half of the 20th Century; notable buildings related to the transportation industry, like the former tire store that houses Creature Comforts and the old bus station that’s now Chuck’s Fish; and landmark music venues like the 40 Watt Club.
But three Black-owned buildings on Hull Street—Brown’s Barber Shop, Wilson’s Styling Shop and the Manhattan—were removed due to opposition, along with First United Methodist Church.
Kenny Kalivoda, a lawyer who also owns property in the district and represents the Brown, Wilson and Wade families, said he believes the district violates a clause in the Georgia constitution that bans taking or damaging private property without compensation. The Athens chapter of the NAACP also opposed including those properties.
However, supporters of the district point to property tax breaks that come with historic designation. Development is still allowed; it just must go through an additional layer of review by the county’s Historic Preservation Commission.
Kalivoda’s law partner, David Montgomery, said that most property owners in the district oppose it. However, the preservation group Historic Athens collected more than 1,000 signatures in support of the district.
For too long, Athens has neglected Black history, said Jennifer Lewis, director of the UGA Center for Community Design and Preservation.
“What message are we sending by not recognizing the history of this area and allowing development to go unchecked?” she said.
Link noted that several buildings built by Black architects that housed Black businesses were torn down in the 1960s and ’70s and are now parking lots.
“There’s definitely a contingent of opponents of historic designation who I’m certain would be happy to see Athens’ creative culture erased as well,” Link said.
The issue did not cut cleanly along racial lines, though. Commissioner Mariah Parker, who is Black, supported the district. Curtison Jones, a hip-hop performer known as Caulfield, also spoke in favor of it.
“I do believe change is inevitable, just to make that clear, but there are certain things that we, at our core, are who we are,” Jones said. “It’s our identity. The western side of downtown is just that. It represents perseverance, progress, struggle. It’s who we are. It’s important that we protect that. This is something that’s near and dear to me, because I am an artist, and it’s where I found myself.”
Watkinsville resident Jill Bateman, the chair of First Methodist’s building committee, said the church cannot afford the $3 million to $4 million cost of maintaining and renovating the Saye Building, a 100-year-old Greek Revival structure on the corner of Lumpkin and Hancock Avenue. The church’s plans to tear down the building for a parking lot sparked the effort to protect the area in 2019. Bateman contended that the Saye Building is “simply not of historic significance.”
Kevin Bates, a Historic Athens board member, said he and executive director Tommy Valentine met with First Methodist and came away confused about the long-term plans for the Saye Building.
“There were a lot of things that didn’t add up,” he said.
After more than two hours of speeches and debate, the commission voted 6-3 in favor of the district, with Link, Parker and commissioners Tim Denson, Russell Edwards, Jesse Houle and Mike Hamby in favor. Commissioners Andy Herod, Ovita Thornton and Allison Wright voted no.
Commissioner Patrick Davenport abstained, although based on his comments he seemed to be opposed. In the days leading up to the meeting, rumors circulated that at least one commissioner would abstain so that Mayor Kelly Girtz couldn’t break a 5-5 tie. (A 5-4 vote would have meant the motion failed.) In the end, the district received six votes, so it didn’t matter.
Before the vote, Thornton lashed out at other commissioners, saying that they were “disrespectful” to her and to property owners, adding that “half of you just came to town.” She advocated for a broader approach to historic preservation and said the local government should make grants available to help with improvements.
“The smirks I see on some of my fellow commissioners’ faces [are] not appreciated,” Thornton said. “You take the folks that spoke like they were jokes.”
Wright introduced her own proposal to include only those property owners who were in favor of the district. That would have left just a small portion of properties protected, mainly on the block bordered by Washington, Lumpkin, Hull and Pulaski streets. There were also disputes about business owners who wanted to be added to or taken out of Wright’s map.
However, Wright’s approach was ill-advised, according to supporters of Link’s proposal. Denson called it “classist and undemocratic” to let property owners scuttle a district that would benefit the entire community. And, as Lewis argued, no one should be allowed to decide which laws apply to them.
Wright said those ideas “sound like something elected officials would have said about Linnentown, and I don’t want to be in that bag.”
Linnentown was a majority Black neighborhood on Baxter Street that was razed to make way for UGA dorms in the 1960s. Houle disputed Wright’s point, saying that UGA displaced Linnentown residents, while the Western Downtown Historic District aims to protect people from displacement.
It will give local entrepreneurs a chance to build small businesses in one of the last remaining parts of downtown that isn’t overrun with chains and luxury student housing, Link said.
“This is all we have left of that scene,” she said.
Such “high-rise hysteria” distracts from a “pragmatic approach,” Wright responded.
Wright’s motion was voted down 8-2, with only herself and Herod in favor.
The vote was Houle’s first after winning a special election earlier this month to fill the remainder of the late Commissioner Jerry NeSmith’s term. Houle was sworn in before the meeting.
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