Historic District Hot Corner Mug (copy)

Brown's Barber Shop, the Manhattan Cafe and Wilson's Styling Shop are inside the proposed historic district in west downtown. (Photo/Ryan Cameron rcameron@randb.com)

As the home of the University of Georgia, the self-proclaimed birthplace of public higher education in America, Athens has a special value both for Georgia and the U.S. It’s no surprise, then, that some Athenians wish to protect their city’s history. The Athens Mayor and Commission will get a chance to do that as they are debating a new historic district in west downtown with the same protections as the one in east downtown.

The plan carries potential risks. If the proposed historic district were to pass, owners of the buildings would face restrictions on changes to the exterior of their buildings. This could be burdensome, and the Mayor and Commission should be careful when weighing the proposal.

The reasoning behind having a historic district sounds good, in theory. Proponents say they want to maintain the character of the western side of downtown Athens, but this reasoning falls flat when you consider that it could hurt institutions like Athens First United Methodist Church and local businesses like Brown’s Barber Shop, Wilson’s Styling Shop and the Manhattan Cafe.

As The Red & Black reported last week, a lawyer representing those three businesses expressed concern that the restrictions on changing the exteriors of their buildings will hurt them financially.

Local people and businesses form the heart of Athens. The government telling them what they can and can’t do with their property could stifle the city’s growth.

Policies like these could hurt the Athens economy. Gregorio Caetano, a professor of urban economics at UGA, said he supports some form of approval process but worries the proposal could lead to burdensome costs for those hoping to start small businesses.

“I do believe the concern voiced by those in favor of preservation is legitimate,” Caetano wrote in an email. “However, I am concerned about the costs … Some would-be entrepreneurs, who were interested in renovating a building to fit to their new business idea, may no longer do so.”

The proposal could stifle business in downtown, robbing the city of economic growth and new jobs. This is a major issue because of Athens’ high levels of poverty and income inequality. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the median household income in Athens was $36,637 in 2014-2018 in 2018 dollars. Losing these businesses could deprive already-struggling residents of sources of income.

There is also some evidence that historic preservation could exacerbate income inequality. A 2011 article in Urban Studies found that historic designation generally increases property values. Although higher property values can help the economy and increase property tax revenue, they could also displace lower-income residents.

Wanting to protect the history of Athens is an admirable goal, but it’s important we don’t let nostalgia cloud our judgment of good policies. Before creating a historic district in west downtown, the Mayor and Commission needs to make sure that it works for everyone. While buildings can contribute to a city’s culture, it’s the people that are its real heart.

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