Immediately after being sworn in as commissioner, Jesse Houle cast the deciding vote in favor of a new historic district championed by Commissioner Melissa Link to protect the west end of downtown Athens.
West downtown finally protected by historic designation
The east end of downtown has been protected by a local historic district since 2006, which prevents most building demolitions and helps preserve the area’s distinctive character. However, the west end, including Hot Corner, the Morton Theatre, Flicker and the 40 Watt had no such protection until last night’s vote, despite being recognized in the National Register of Historic Places.
Without the shield of a historic district, downtown’s west end would be a prime target for developers looking to profit by constructing luxury student apartments. That could have had huge ramifications for Athens’ culture and music scene, already reeling from the loss of venues like Caledonia.
As Link put it, the historic district “is our last chance to ensure the unique creative culture that quite literally put Athens on the map.”
Historic preservation of this area was long considered by the commission. There was a lengthy public input process which included a survey and several town hall-style meetings with property owners, as well as individual meetings, although outreach efforts were hampered by COVID-19.
The process began in January 2019, when Link declared a moratorium on development in this area, something within her power as commissioner of district 3, which includes downtown. She did that to protect the 100-year-old Saye building from demolition by First United Methodist Church, who wanted to put a twelve-space parking lot in its place.
The full commission somewhat reluctantly agreed to extend Link’s moratorium. They also instructed ACC staff to develop a proposal for a new historic district. Their proposal actually ended up extending even beyond the National Register district to include all five downtown churches.
Delays… and more delays
The vote on this historic district was originally scheduled for December 2019, but due to fierce opposition from these churches and from some business owners, the vote ended up being delayed for six months. The delay seemed to give ample time for continued outreach to business owners, and a town hall-style meeting was held in February. Unfortunately, some further outreach plans had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This meant the vote was delayed again for several more months. It was even briefly delayed once more — until Houle was able to be sworn in — in a bit of political maneuvering by the district’s supporters.
The final vote
The final vote on the historic district passed 6-3, with Commissioners Allison Wright, Andy Herod and Ovita Thornton voting no. Commissioner Patrick Davenport abstained. It would not have passed without Houle’s support (six votes are necessary for ordinances to pass, although the mayor is allowed to break ties).
By the time of the vote, commissioners had sharply reduced the area of historic protection (shown above) from the original staff recommendation. Currently, all areas outside the National Register district have been removed, as requested by the downtown churches. First United Methodist Church was similarly cut out of historic designation.
The black-owned businesses along Hull Street, including Brown’s and Wilson’s barber shops, were also left unprotected at their request. These business owners were concerned about losing opportunities to sell their properties to developers, thus reducing the amount they might receive if they ever did decide to sell.
The Athens NAACP sent an open letter to the mayor and commission strongly supporting the right of these business owners to opt out of the district. APN was not able to receive a comment from the Athens NAACP regarding the historic district that was passed on Tuesday, despite speaking to several members of the organization’s executive committee.
Tommy Valentine, Executive Director of Historic Athens, praised the vote as “mark[ing] a new day in preservation in Athens.” He said that the final district map, which was supported by many property owners, clearly meets the criteria to merit historic preservation, noting that it has been endorsed by the Georgia Trust. He also noted that over 1,000 people signed a petition by Historic Athens in favor of the district.
An ongoing controversy
Nevertheless, the new district remains controversial. Despite having been removed, First United Methodist Church threatened to “use every available and legal means” to fight historic designation and defend their “Constitutional rights.” They asked that protection be removed from the Saye building, ostensibly because they are still interested in turning it into a parking lot, but the commission denied their request.
Some property owners also remain opposed, most notably David Montgomery, who owns 173 W. Clayton Street. He claimed that most property owners in the district were opposed, which appears to be untrue, although it’s possible he was referring to the previous, more expansive map which was not ultimately approved by the commission.
This vote granting historic protection to west downtown highlights the growing power of the commission’s socialist and progressive wings, newly strengthened with the addition of Houle. It also shows the growing division, even dysfunction, that has been creeping through the body. Throughout hours of discussion and debate on this topic, commissioners had strong words for their colleagues who did not share their perspective.
For example, when Wright proposed a plan to restrict historic preservation to only those property owners who want to be included, Commissioner Tim Denson called it “undemocratic” and “classist” because it favored the rights of property owners over those of the rest of the community. Wright shot back, saying that progressives were behaving in a white supremacist manner similar to those who displaced black Athenians in Linnentown during the urban renewal of the 1960s.
Likewise, in her passionate defense of historic preservation, Link accused those who oppose the district as being “complicit” in “cultural erasure.”
Lastly, Thornton castigated her colleagues for ignoring and being disrespectful to black business owners, such as Homer Wilson, who spoke against the historic district during public comment. “You make it seem like these hard-working property owners have no say so in this community. How disrespectful! I don’t care who puts their foot on my neck, it hurts. I don’t care if it’s a right-wing conservative or a left-wing liberal.”
Despite her no vote, Thornton was sure to indicate her general support for historic preservation in her comments.