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As Poncey-Highland weighs historic district status, some fear affordability’s at stake

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“This would not be your mama’s historic district, or even your friend’s over in Inman Park”

A picture of a low-rise apartment complex with a yard covered in fallen leaves.
Tenants of an older Poncey-Highland apartment complex like this one have been urged to vote “No.”
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Poncey-Highland residents are scheduled to vote March 18 on whether they think the neighborhood should form its own historic district, a move that could help protect the community’s aging and significant buildings.

It could also hike up rents, some fear.

As Atlanta’s population swells, many Poncey-Highland residents want to keep some control over how the neighborhood develops, and proponents of the neighborhood-wide historic district believe it’s the best avenue toward making that happen.

“If adopted ... this would not be your mama’s historic district, or even your friend’s over in Inman Park,” reads a blog post by the Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association.

The City of Atlanta, per the association, is “open to exploring how to use the preservation ordinance in a new way to address our neighborhood’s specific concerns and to implement recommendations in the Poncey-Highland Master Plan in addition to preserving historic structures.”

The Poncey-Highland Historic District, in theory, would grant residents some say in the design process of new buildings in the area and prevent the demolition of historic homes and buildings, such as the old Excelsior Mill building in nearby Old Fourth Ward, which used to house the Masquerade music venue.

The way the historic district ordinance is drafted allows for some unique changes to properties that would be barred in traditional historic districts, such as:

  • Full second-story additions on historic residential properties;
  • Upper-story additions on historic commercial properties;
  • Painted brick (with special paint);
  • Modern additions in the rear of the house;
  • Contemporary/modern developments on infill lots.

The move, as Atlanta’s planning commissioner Tim Keane put it in December, “would protect scores of old apartment buildings, which provide great affordable units.”

However, some locals are worried that creating a historic district could actually be detrimental for the area’s affordability.

As Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association members acknowledge, historic districts are known for helping boost property values. When that happens, rent prices tend to follow suit.

Thomas Carmichael, for instance, owns the North High Ridge Apartments on North Avenue, among other Poncey-Highland rentals and the Highland Inn.

In a letter obtained by Curbed Atlanta, Carmichael warned North High Ridge tenants that living in a historic district could mean rent increases, since new regulations would mandate that “common maintenance items” like replacing windows, doors, and porches would require approval from the City of Atlanta.

A map of the proposed historic district. Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association

Essentially, rather than just buying new materials at Home Depot, Carmichael said he and other landlords would have to ensure updates gelled with the city’s historic preservation guidelines, which could be costlier than making conventional changes.

However, according to the latest draft of the historic district proposal, alterations of historic structures could be made with non-historic materials, assuming they’re compatible with the existing construction’s style.

In the letter, though, Carmichael urged his tenants to vote against the historic district.

“[Carmichael] has worked very, very hard to keep his rents low and affordable, and that’s obviously a hot-button issue right now,” said David Metzger, an attorney for Carmichael. “A historic district would make it more costly to do business.”

But a concerned resident, who asked not to be named in this story, contended that “historic districts keep older houses and buildings maintained and occupied, and anything existing is more affordable than what might get built in its place.”

Supporters of the historic district have also argued that it could prevent properties like Carmichaels’s from being razed and replaced with large-scale, luxury complexes, although Metzger told Curbed there are other ways to protect the old buildings from demolition.

He’s referring to earning historic landmark designation from the city, which can also stave off the wrecking ball.

Tonight at 7 p.m., a community meeting to discuss details of the potential historic district is being held at the Church at Ponce & Highland.

Doug Young, the city’s assistant director of Historic Preservation and executive director of the Urban Design Commission, and TSW principal Caleb Racicot are expected to present the latest version of the historic district ordinance at the meeting.

David Mitchell, Atlanta Preservation Center’s director of operations, told Curbed the decision on whether to create the historic district “must be inclusive and thoughtful.”

“Preservation is a contribution to any community, but it must come with the acknowledgement that stewardship is a standard,” he said. “No one can legislate human emotions, but you can create a framework for sustainability.”

The exact terms of the historic district regulations are still subject to change, although the March 18 vote will determine what’s presented to the local neighborhood planning unit, the city’s zoning review board, and, ultimately, the Atlanta City Council.

This story was updated to include mention of proposed regulations pertaining to making changes to historic structures.