Monday, September 14, 2009

Economic downturn provides a breather for preservationists

Economic downturn provides a breather for preservationists

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The bulldozers have gone silent and Atlanta’s historic structures are — for the most part — getting a breather.

The recession that has paralyzed construction means old structures aren’t getting scraped and replaced with the frequency or fervor that three years ago caused the Georgia Trust for Historic Places to put the entire Virginia-Highland neighborhood on its annual Places in Peril list.

When times are good, historic preservationists can’t keep up with developers. Now, they say, there’s time to inventory historic properties and structures and try to persuade owners to conserve rather than demolish.

“The tear-downs were always a threat; there were many antebellum homes on large tracts of land being developed,” said Daryl Barksdale, until recently the executive director of the Cobb Landmarks and Historical Society. “That pressure is gone. The developmental flood has gone away. It’s a time to take stock of your organization and see what was important.”

Preservationists are taking the down time to tend “most endangered structures” lists and reach out to property owners to see if they will work with the groups in preserving their structures or even donating them to the public for tax breaks.

Those are the silver linings, but there are still dark clouds.

Large historic rehabilitation projects have essentially halted, causing some structures to be threatened with “demolition by deterioration.” Foreclosures also threaten to put historical properties in the hands of owners not inclined to work with preservation groups.

And generating funding, always a challenge for these nonprofit groups, has been especially difficult, causing layoffs and cutbacks for many. Barksdale, who was with Cobb Landmarks for eight years, recently changed careers after the organization cut her hours.

As the recession winds on, here are some metro area preservation leaders’ observations on the current environment.

Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation

The recession is “having a profound effect on nonprofit organizations across the board. We’ve laid off three people and have two more positions unfilled,“ said Mark McDonald, president of Georgia Trust. “The silver lining is we’re not seeing the battlefields being gobbled up. It was hard to keep up with what sites were coming next. It was like a barrage of artillery fire. It does give us a little bit of a breather to take stock of what there is.

“The downturn in the economy has hurt historic rehabilitation, especially the big projects,” he said. Ambitious plans to convert old mills and manufacturing plants into lofts and bistros will remain just plans. Anecdotally, he said, the number of small historic home renovations are up as more people stay in their homes.

There have been preservation victories, including a property on Georgia Trust’s 2009 “Places in Peril” list: the Crum and Forster Building on Spring Street. The city last month granted landmark status for the three-story building with a Renaissance facade of columns and arches. The Georgia Tech Foundation had sought to demolish it for possible expansion of the Technology Square project.

Georgia Trust is now working with developers/owners of four properties to get them donated, McDonald said. “It’s a buyer’s market right now,” he said. “We should have a nice inventory of historic buildings.”

Once donated, the organization works to get people to take over the properties and rehabilitate them in an agreed-upon manner. McDonald likens it to the “ugly puppies” adoption drives at animal shelters — “free to good home.”

Also, he is talking with bankers about placing easements limiting future development on foreclosed tracts of land in exchange for tax write-offs. “That’s another thing this craziness is creating,” he said. “This is so new, we have to think anew.”

Cobb Landmarks & History Society

Ongoing funding problems caught up with the group when it lost its director, Barksdale, who moved to another job.

“She was working full-time but we were paying her part-time,” said Cobb Landmarks’ preservation chairman, Richard Todd. “We had to really cut back. Fund-raising opportunities are thin.”

Like the Georgia Trust, Cobb Landmarks is “keeping a public eye” on historic properties, talking to owners and trying to persuade them to retain the historical structures or at least shore them up until they can be renovated.

“The best we can do is to keep attention on them; it’s a mode now of buying time,” he said.

The organization helped get money to repair the Acworth Rosenwald School. Work was completed this year. The 85-year-old structure was built by the Julius Rosenwald School Building Fund, a philanthropic drive that built public schools for black children in the early 20th century.

Cobb Landmarks is also working to save a series of trenches from the Civil War Battle of Kennesaw Mountain that are on parcels of land in private hands. The organization is trying to get landowners to donate part of their property to the county for “pocket parks.”

Buckhead Heritage Society

The organization came together over a small, forgotten cemetery called Harmony Grove that was ultimately preserved. This month, it spearheaded a lawsuit to save Mt. Olive Cemetery, which served a small black community that was forced out of Buckhead in the 1940s and 1950s. A land speculator who bought the 0.17-acre sliver of land adjoining Frankie Allen Park is seeking permission from the city to relocate the graves.

“Mt. Olive Cemetery is the last remnant that this community was there,” said Christine McCauley, executive director of the heritage society. “They helped build Buckhead. We don’t want to lose this last piece of history.”

The organization has been growing, getting 400 people in the past nine months to fund sponsorships averaging $130.

“We’re trying to inventory all our historic structures in Buckhead,” she said. “We’re doing a lot of education. We want people in Buckhead to be aware of their history and their historic structures. If people understand the value of their history then they are more likely to protect it.”

Atlanta Preservation Center

In April, the Atlanta Preservation Center sponsored its annual Buckhead in Bloom tour featuring “eight of Atlanta’s most exquisite houses and gardens open to the public.” One was the Cocke House, described as “a 1934 Georgian Revival on Valley Road with lavish gardens and an interior lovingly decorated with family heirlooms and antiques.”

By the summer, the house was gone, demolished by a builder who, according to the building permit, plans to build a single family home worth $5 million. Boyd Coons, the Preservation Center’s executive director, said at least one more historic Tuxedo Park home nearby also has been leveled.

“Those who still have money do as they choose,” he said. The organization likes to call itself “the eyes and ears of historic preservation in Atlanta,” but Coons admits “we’re often the last ones to know” about a developer’s plans.

“You think we could catch our breath, but we haven’t,” he said.

The Preservation Center helped lead the charge to save the Crum & Forster building near Tech, and is keeping an eye on several potential redevelopments, including Pullman Yards in the Kirkwood area; Murray Mill, an 1800s cotton gin in northwest Atlanta; and the Beltline, the 22 miles of abandoned railroad lines around Atlanta envisioned as the site of mixed-use developments, parks and transit. He said many older structures in that path are endangered — especially in lower-income areas.

One other potential for trouble, said Philip Covin, who chairs the organization’s advocacy committee, is “historic structures going into foreclosure. There’s property trading hands, and we don’t know who [the new owners] are or what their plans are.”

Most notable in that realm is Inman Park Properties, which has bought and renovated several historic structures and recently has had properties in the foreclosure process or put up for sale.

Among properties owned by Inman Park are: the Clermont Hotel; the Hilan Theatre, an Art Deco space in Virginia Highland; the Castle in Midtown; the DAR building on Piedmont Road and the Wrecking Bar, a 1900 Victorian house on Moreland Avenue.

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