Morton Theater Photo

Morton Theatre will be included in the approved west downtown Athens historic district, which was voted on in a special called session of the Athens Mayor and Commission on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. (Photo/Ryan Cameron

Before Drew Dekle built up the Quality Building on 265 W. Washington St. with popular tenants such as Flicker Theatre and Bar, Clocked! and Iron Factory, he would visit his grandfather, who owned the same building during his childhood. In those childhood visits, Dekle would frequent a pool hall between the Morton Theatre and the Quality Building.

“It was kind of a rough place for a 12-year-old, middle-class kid to hang out, but I learned a lot there,” Dekle said. “It was a culture shock — I grew up in suburban Atlanta, and here I am shooting pool with blue-collar, working-class guys.”

Since his childhood visits to Athens during the 1970s and 1980s, Dekle has seen the west side of downtown change while maintaining some of its key historic sites, such as the Morton Theatre, the Hot Corner intersection and 40 Watt Club.

To preserve the character of the western side of downtown, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission has discussed a proposal to designate the area as a local historic district. The proposal has drawn both vocal supporters and outspoken detractors to commission meetings since November.

The proposed district designation would require property owners to complete a multi-step approval process to change the facades of their buildings, including a Planning Staff review and a Historic Preservation Commission meeting.

Hot Corner Map

In the next few weeks, the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department will schedule community information sessions about the proposed district. The Mayor and Commission will vote on the proposal before June.

If implemented, this process could restrict Athens First United Methodist Church from demolishing a building it owns ­— the Saye Building — at 110 W. Hancock Ave.

The historic building — built in 1920 — has fallen into disrepair, Jill Bateman, the Athens First UMC Building Committee Chair, said. She said the church wants to expand its mission and feels the building’s demolition, rather than renovation, would help the church grow.

“It would be a significant financial burden for us to renovate the current structure,” Bateman said. “The financial implication is where we have seen the greatest need for concern.”

However, advocates for the district say such regulations are vital to protect the character of the area.

“We want to make sure that we are honoring and preserving the western part of downtown the same way that we have honored and preserved the eastern portion of downtown,” said Tommy Valentine, the executive director of Historic Athens, a non-profit working to preserve local history.

The current local historic district — which only covers portions of east downtown — was adopted in 2006, ACC Assistant Planning Director Bruce Lonnee said in an email. In the email, Lonnee said if the commission approves the newly proposed district, the unprotected area of downtown will be protected by the same guidelines as the current district.

In 1978, the U.S. National Park Service placed the east side of downtown Athens on the National Register of Historic Places. While the NPS expanded the national historic district to include the western side in 2006, the western side does not have a local historic designation.

“Placement on the National Register is a great honor,” Valentine said. “It means you’ve documented and proven it’s one of the most critically important historic places in the country. But what it doesn’t do is actually protect the site. It’s entirely possible for the local property owner or local projects to dramatically alter, demolish or change the character of that property.”

The district would primarily affect property owners’ ability to change the exterior of their building. Projects such as demolishing the building, constructing new parking lots and adding additional sections to the building would be subject to more scrutiny from the local government.

Valentine also wants to preserve the history of Athens minority and working-class communities.

“We’re not just having a discussion about history. We are also having a discussion about race and class and making sure we are telling the entire story of Athens,” Valentine said.

However, David Montgomery, a lawyer, believes the district will undercut western downtown’s development and hurt these businesses. Montgomery said he represents three business owners who run businesses in the proposed historic district, and he spoke on their behalf at a Dec. 3 Mayor and Commission meeting.

Montgomery said he represents Theodore Brown of Brown’s Barber Shop, Homer Wilson of Wilson’s Styling Shop and John Wade, the property owner of the Manhattan Cafe. Montgomery believes preserving these buildings according to the proposed historic guidelines will be costly and disproportionately burden these men.

“I don’t see the legitimacy of requiring one landowner to keep his building like it is because folks have a cultural interest in [the building] staying like it is,” Montgomery said.

The commission will vote on the proposal before June 2020, at which point the demolition moratorium will expire. The moratorium over western downtown was extended to the end of June 2020 to give the commissioners time to deliberate the proposal without fear of losing historic sites.

In the coming weeks, the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department will schedule community information sessions about the proposal to educate tenants and property owners and answer their questions.