Atlanta Intown Magazine, January 2021
By Collin Kelley and Julie Herron Carson
Beth McDonald and Lisa Malaney have lost count of the number of hours they’ve worked over the last three-plus years to bring the Poncey-Highland Historic District to fruition, but both agree the work is not over yet.
Residents, commercial building owners, Neighborhood Planning Unit-N, and the City of Atlanta approved the plan in mid-September last year, and it’s likely to become a blueprint for other Intown neighborhoods. McDonald and Malaney said the goal of the historic district zoning has always been to preserve the neighborhood’s unique historic character and buildings, while allowing property owners the flexibility to improve their homes and businesses and even construct new buildings.
The 20-street Poncey-Highland neighborhood was originally developed between 1910 and 1940 as Atlantans took advantage of the expanded streetcar system to move out of the central city and into more suburban neighborhoods. Bounded by Ponce de Leon Avenue to the north, Moreland Avenue to the east, Freedom Parkway to the south and the Atlanta Beltline Eastside Trail to the west, the neighborhood includes single-family homes, established businesses, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, apartment and condominium buildings, parks, churches and more.
The arrival of the BeltLine and Ponce City Market turned the spotlight on Poncey-Highland and developers began to circle, McDonald said.
“In 2018, developers approached property owners on Somerset Terrace about selling their bungalows so they could be torn down for townhomes,” McDonald, who was president of the Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association from 2016 to 2019, recalled. “We were playing whack-a-mole with developers, and it became obvious that if we didn’t start doing things differently, there wouldn’t be anything left to preserve.”
Malaney, the PHNA land use chair, said uncertainty about the fate of Briarcliff Plaza – the historic shopping strip at Ponce de Leon and N. Highland that is home to the Plaza Theatre and Majestic Diner – when it was sold 2017 “lit a fire” under her to pursue the historic district zoning.
Two of Poncey-Highland’s streets – Somerset Terrace and Bonaventure – got historic status before the rest of the neighborhood. Located adjacent to the BeltLine, the bungalow-lined streets were under threat by developers.
“After that success, folks wanted to know when something else would be done for the rest of neighborhood,” Malaney said.
The PHNA turned to a familiar face when it came time to guide the neighborhood through the process. Caleb Racicot, community planner and senior principal of Atlanta-based TSW, drafted Poncey-Highland’s original master plan in 2009, and was subsequently re-hired to draft the new zoning.
“I truly believe this new type of Historic District will serve as a model for other neighborhoods across the country,” Racicot said. “Many historic districts are created to ‘freeze’ a neighborhood at a specific moment in time. The Poncey-Highland neighborhood took a much more creative approach that preserves the neighborhood’s unique features, while allowing it to evolve appropriately to meet the needs and desires of future residents and businesses.”
The new historic district designation identifies and defines historic residences as those built up to 1940 and commercial structures built up to 1955 and still largely intact. Staff from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission reviewed these buildings within Poncey-Highland and determined which ones contribute to the neighborhood’s historic character.
In drafting the new zoning, the neighborhood stakeholders agreed they did not want the neighborhood to be frozen in time. While the building facades will be preserved, property owners are permitted to modify and expand buildings in the rear, including additions that increase height. There are no restrictions governing exterior paint colors or residential landscape design.
Racicot explained, “Working with the Urban Design Commission and the City of Atlanta, we created a forward-thinking Historic District that focuses on preserving what we called the ‘Lot Compatibility Zone.’ The zone establishes the most stringent preservation standards on the portion of a lot within 60 feet of a public street. Beyond 60 feet, greater flexibility is allowed. For the most part, this means the forward-facing façades of historically significant buildings will be maintained and protected, but property owners are free to improve and/or expand the rear of their buildings and even add accessory dwelling units in the back. In areas with fewer remaining historic resources, such as along Ponce de Leon Avenue or near the Atlanta Beltline, the new district allows for significant new mid- and high-rise construction, provided all historic buildings are preserved,” Racicot said.
There were naysayers to the plan, mainly from commercial building owners and residents who believed the designation would cost them money or restrict their rights as property owners. Opposition signs were visible along N. Highland Avenue and it sparked often heated debate in online community forums. The majority of Poncey-Highland’s residents were in favor, McDonald said, due to concerns about the loss of historic homes, buildings, and the threat of “McMansions” encroaching into the community.
McDonald said the city would also be using Poncey-Highland’s new zoning status as a model as it begins to rezone other neighborhoods to allow for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to provide more affordable housing.
“We’ve got provisions for getting affordable housing done without having to tear something down,” McDonald said. “We were very appreciative of the City of Atlanta’s willingness to work with us on this process.”
With the heavy lifting complete, both McDonald and Malaney said there is still education to be done to help the community understand what the historic district zoning means to them, including a user-friendly
website and a PHNA historic district committee.
Malaney hopes Poncey-Highland’s work will be a catalyst for other Intown neighborhoods.
“Once people understand what’s possible, I think other neighborhoods might want to do this too,” Malaney said. “Having zoning that speaks and is tailored to a neighborhood gives the community more agency.”
"[D]uring last year’s proposed rezoning, a portion of the Inman Park Historic District was slated to be rezoned to allow multi-family housing, despite the previously existing restrictions associated with their Historic District."
Fact-Check: From the City Planning Dept: "As for the MR-MU zoning, IF it had passed as proposed at that time, Inman Park HD designation would still have been in place and governed all of the topics it normally covered."
"On April 19, 2022 Doug Young, the City of Atlanta’s Interim Director, Office of Design wrote the following in an email to the APCA President, Paul Dimmick: “The presence of the historic district would not have precluded the rezoning (as it was proposed at that time)... As I have noted several times before, the City planning or historic preservation staff does not know the extent, scale, and scope of future zoning changes that have yet to be conceived – that is not possible. Therefore, myself or any other City staff can’t guarantee what a proposed future zoning change might or might not do in relationship to an established Historic or Landmark District.”
Fact-Check: What Doug Young actually wrote on April 19 (the parts the opponents took out are in bold):
"The actual legislation, as proposed at that time, itself noted: 'SECTION 2. All parcels in this rezoning that are located in any historic overlay or landmark district must meet the historic preservation requirements of the district.' As such, the proposed rezoning – if it had been adopted as proposed at that time - would have rezoned the general, underlying zoning (R4, R4A, and R5), but retained the overlay historic district with its various requirements – in this case the Inman Park Historic District. The presence of the historic district would not have precluded the rezoning (as it was proposed at that time), but the Historic District zoning would have been retained along with the new zoning district, if that new zoning district had been adopted."
As I have noted several times before, ... " (cont.)
"Historic Districts are a legislative creation of the City of Atlanta and nothing prevents the City Council from passing future zoning legislation that supersedes a Historic District."
Fact-Check: From the City: "Since 1989, when the current Historic Preservation Ordinance was enacted, no historic or landmark district (22 across the city) zoning status has ever been removed."
Also, from the City:
"If the Atlanta City Council or anybody else wanted to undo the Historic District zoning, there is a process to follow as well – the general City of Atlanta rezoning process."
The Atlanta City Council must follow this process and has no authority to vote on a rezoning application / legislation without the above process being followed."
Back to the initial statement: that argument could be applied to ANY zoning ordinance. For example, the Beltline Overlay District (BOD) is also a "legislative creation." So ... if:
What happens when the City Council passes "future zoning legislation that supersedes" the current BOD rules - and removes the current single-family exclusion - allowing high-density/multi-family zoning in half of Ansley Park?
(Which is a requirement to get massive "transit-oriented development" funding from the federal government for the 3 proposed light-rail MARTA stops along Piedmont.)
Does Ansley Park have enough political clout to successfully oppose this?
"Ansley Park’s National Register listing is not at risk since it is based on more than just the age of the homes within the neighborhood. Removal from the National Register is something that would only occur under very limited circumstances which are not at risk of occurring within the neighborhood even with the pace of home renovations and improvements."
Fact-Check: From the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation: "Although the neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it has not been designated by the city as a Local Historic District, which would offer protections from demolition through city ordinance. Without that protection and review, the past decade has seen many historic, architecturally significant homes demolished and replaced with insensitive infill. Nearing a point of no return, the district risks losing its National Register designation if too many contributing buildings in the neighborhood are lost, and the city risks losing some of its finest architectural heritage."
From the Georgia Trust's executive director: "It’s at the tipping point. Only 54 percent of the houses there are original. If you lose them and other historic homes and buildings, we become more generic and less distinctive every day. It leads to a loss of quality of life and enjoyment. These homes and places are in peril. Go see them while you can.”
"By imposing more restrictions and empowering the city to rule over our aesthetic choices, the values of homes will be diminished by a historic district."
Fact-Check: From a 2019 study on historic districts in Fulton and Dekalb Counties by Georgia State University (using 25 year's worth of property value data from 1990-2015):
"Table 4 reveals a significant increase in property values associated with the change in historic district status for both types." (Referring to listing on the National Register of Historic Places AND local historic district designation).
"The report provides separate estimates for these effects and finds significant positive effects associated with both types of historic district status changes."
"The estimated effects in this report suggest fears of negative property value effects associated with local historic designation or listing on the National Register are unwarranted."
"National Register listing does not give Ansley Park any control over nearby developments other than the ability to provide written commentary on federal transportation projects. There is no obligation on the part of the federal, state, or city governments to adhere to any written comments or to otherwise modify designs or development plans based on the input from a neighborhood on the registry."
Fact-Check: From A Citizen's Guide to Section 106 Review (Advisory Council on Historic Preservation):
"In the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), Congress established a comprehensive program to preserve the historical and cultural foundations of the nation as a living part of community life. Section 106 of the NHPA is crucial to that program because it requires consideration of historic preservation in the multitude of projects with federal involvement that take place across the nation every day. Section 106 requires federal agencies to consider the effects of projects they carry out, approve, or fund on historic properties."
"When historic properties may be harmed, Section 106 review usually ends with a legally binding agreement that establishes how the federal agency will avoid, minimize, or mitigate the adverse effects. In the very few cases where this does not occur, the ACHP issues advisory comments to the head of the agency who must then consider these comments in making a final decision about whether the project will proceed. Section 106 reviews ensure federal agencies fully consider historic preservation issues and the views of the public during project planning. Section 106 reviews do not mandate the approval or denial of projects."
The ability to demand impact studies and mitigation gives historic neighborhoods a "seat at the table" when federal monies or projects by any federal agency might affect them.
"The historic district would impose far more onerous restrictions on the neighborhood that go well beyond objective criteria like height. There are both newer and contributing historical homes within Ansley Park that would violate the proposed historic district limitations."
Fact-Check: From the Poncey-Highland Historic District FAQs:
"Basically if you don’t need a building permit for it now, you probably wouldn’t once the historic district is in place. If you DO want to add on or alter your property, depending on what you want to do, the approval process could be as short as three days or up to two weeks. That’s compared to the three-month or longer process to get a variance through the usual NPU system, which involves multiple meetings. The reason for this is that if the neighborhood has decided what the regulations are in advance, and they’re are based on the existing physical conditions in the neighborhood, so there’s no need for a property owner to go to multiple meetings (neighborhood, NPU, BZA) to seek support. Approval is given either by UDC staff review or commission review (including a public hearing) based on the specific regulations of the district."
"Historic district designation does not require property owners to restore any building to the way it looked in the past. The regulation of work is not retroactive."
Fact-Check for owners of condominiums, from Beacon Property Management:
"FACTS ABOUT CONDOMINIUM ASSOCIATIONS IN ATLANTA:
Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions of the Condominium Association
Everyone who buys a Condominium will receive a set of Covenants,Conditions and Restrictions(CC &Rs). Before signing the contract, the selling agent must disclose what the rules and regulations of the Association encompass. There may be restrictions on pets roaming free, parking for overnight guests, or types of landscaping owners can put on their patios or balconies just to mention a few.
All Condos have a Homeowners Association that enforces the CC & Rs. The Homeowners Association is a legal entity that has enforcement powers to collect fees, enforce rules and regulations, or put liens on homes or even initiate foreclosure should owners become delinquent in paying Association dues. Residents who want to make an exception to the CC & Rs have to ask permission. If they want to alter the appearance of the unit from street view."
"There are already lot coverage and height restrictions that govern houses within Ansley Park."
Fact-check: From Doug Young, Interim Director, Office of Design, Atlanta City Planning:
"Why have a Historic or Landmark District?
Doesn’t “regular” zoning accomplish this? No, it doesn’t." Slide Presentation, 4/26/22 Meeting with Ansley Park residents
Also, this claim assumes we can keep R4 zoning indefinitely. Single-family residential zoning appears to be at risk of being eliminated by the City.
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