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Atlanta's Historic Districts: The Double-Edged Sword

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Like any major city, Atlanta's encircled by miles and miles of "Anywhere, USA," so experiencing her historic neighborhoods can be a sigh of relief for those seeking a little character in their surroundings. Some of these communities have taken it upon themselves to become historic districts, including well-known examples such as Cabbagetown, West End, Druid Hills, Grant Park and Inman Park (above). Like anything else restricting property rights, historic district regulations have sparked fierce debate on the local and national level. So what does it mean to live in one of Atlanta's historic districts?

Historic districts come about as a result of community commitment; the city doesn't force the designation on those who don't want it. After a lengthy process of collecting input and data, a new set of super localized rules is put intot the official zoning code. Official designation is meant to preserve a neighborhood's historic character and prevent changes that would detract from its specific look. Keep in mind: There's a difference between a National Register Historic District and a City of Atlanta historic district; the former recognizes the significance of a neighborhood but offers no enforceable protections like the latter. The Midtown neighborhood is a good example of this situation, as it's on the national register but has so far not achieved local protection.

Exterior changes are paramount in Atlanta's historic districts. Unless an interior alteration is visible from the street — a dropped ceiling, for instance (yuck) — no permission is needed. If something's being done to the outside of the home, details of the plans must be submitted to the city's Urban Design Commission for review. Facade alteration, demolition and additions are the most commonly reviewed changes. Keep in mind: Paint colors are not under the Commission's purview. The size of the work determines how long you'll wait on a decision; if it's major you'll probably need to attend a commission meeting for official review. Even so, depending on the specific district's rules, you might not need to ask permission in the first place. It's all part of understanding your district's specific regulations.

Historic districts are a double-edged sword. One one hand, they're assurance that a neighborhood will keep its integrity and maintain the uniqueness that attracted investment in the first place. Keep the baby and the bathwater, right? In another sense, they can create hardship for homeowners who aren't prepared for the time and/or money that goes into maintaining the look of an included property. The case of Angel Povetund is a good example; the renovation of his Adair Park home garnered attention after he learned he would be forced to replace its windows with historically accurate wooden versions instead of cheaper, modern vinyl models.

The most important bit of advice we can give: Do your homework before committing to a protected neighborhood.

— By Curbed contributor Jonathan Carnright