Around 15 citizens gave public input on a Historic District Designation for western downtown, with most commenters opposing the proposal, at an Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission agenda-setting meeting on Nov. 19.
A formal public hearing for the designation item is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 3., the same day the Commission will vote on the items discussed on Tuesday.
The proposed historic district would encompass approximately 13 square blocks on the west end of downtown Athens, bounded by Dougherty Street and Prince Avenue to its North, Lumpkin Street to its East, West Broad Street to its South and Pulaski Street to its West.
The designation would require permission from the ACC Historic Preservation Commission for any demolition or changes to the appearance of the properties within the district.
The majority of residents who spoke out against the designation were members of various churches located in the proposed district. Bill Hopper, deacon chair at First Baptist Church in Athens, said all five churches in the district oppose the proposal.
Some residents raised concerns about the number of plots of land that aren’t required to pay property taxes in the proposed district, others said the designation would impair the ability of churches to carry out their ministry missions.
“Creating the Western Downtown Athens Local Historic District would hinder our effectiveness to do ministry and to grow outreach,” said Betsy Butler, who serves as a clergywoman at Athens First United Methodist Church. Butler began her public input by sharing anecdotes of people the Church has ministered to.
A few residents did express support for the item. District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link was the first to speak on the issue during the Commission’s deliberations and delivered a strong approval of the designation.
Proponents, including Link, noted concerns about parcels in the district being bought by companies interested in developments like condominiums. One resident, Joseph Carter, said companies should have to go through the local government “to ask for permission.”
“If this government does not protect the heritage that is Hot Corner, then it commits the same thing that it did to Linnentown, where the dorms are,” Carter said. “That will be your legacy, of not protecting a heritage of African American communities whose properties are constantly dispossessed.”
Link said Athens’ culture, including the music scene and the Hot Corner historic black business district, put the city “on the map,” but it has been pushed further West as the demographics of the area have changed.
“I hear it from folks who remember when an entire neighborhood was razed for student housing dorms to go up,” Link said. “Many folks associate that activity from 40 to 50 years ago, with the activity that is going on now in downtown.”
District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby said while he has traditionally been supportive of historic districts, he believed the proposed item could use some modifications. Hamby did not offer suggestions. Hamby thanked community members for their comments during the input.
The Mayor and Commission also discussed the hotly debated prosperity package, which should see a vote at the Dec. 3 meeting. The Commission still lacked a broad consensus on the item with District 1 Commissioner Patrick Davenport and District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith vocally opposing the item, consistent with their expressed opinions at previous meetings.
District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson, District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker and District 9 Commissioner Ovita Thornton spoke in favor of the item.