As the city of Atlanta revamps its historic preservation policy, one idea on the table would preserve the character of residential streets by limiting the size of infill housing, a major concern for Buckhead’s tree and house preservationists.

But first, the city needs to overcome skepticism from residents who said an Oct. 24 Buckhead meeting that they don’t trust officials to enforce today’s rules, let alone new and improved ones.

Doug Young, a city historic preservation official, speaks during the Oct. 24 “Future Places Project” meeting at the Cathedral of St. Philip. (John Ruch)

“We know that we have developers absolutely destroying our neighborhoods right now,” said Mary Norwood, chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, at the city input meeting at the Cathedral of St. Philip. She noted that traditional landmarking, which preserves specific buildings, has been rejected by Buckhead residents for neighborhoods, but that new methods could reduce the infill impact.

Dubbed the “Future Places Project,” the review is looking the city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance, which is getting fairly historic itself at roughly three decades old. The update eventually will part of a new city zoning code.

Currently, the city’s Urban Design Commission reviews zoning-related protections for 23 historic districts and 63 structures or other landmarks.

Doug Young, the city’s assistant director of Historic Preservation and executive director of the commission, said that process is a “hammer.” The city needs more “tools” to preserve historic neighborhoods, communities and areas, he said.

The city aims to produce a report on new historic preservation ideas by May. Meanwhile, officials are reviewing a wide variety of ideas from other cities. Young described some of them as “pretty out there…in terms of radicalness” compared to what Atlanta has now. One idea is requiring city historic preservation staff approval for demolishing any structure more than 50 years old; another is offering grants for preserving historic properties.

At the meeting, the roughly 50 residents in attendance could provide input in a variety of ways, from sticker-voting on policy ideas to making a video recording of their comments and memories.

Young emphasized that the city has not decided on any specific tactics or policies yet. But infill housing is a big focus, in both theory and practice. The meeting included a distinct station for input about infill housing. And in Poncey-Highland, a new approach to restricting infill is already in place. The new Bonaventure-Somerset Historic District, covering two streets near Ponce City Market, does not protect specific buildings, Young said; instead, it limits the scale, size and massing of new houses to maintain the historic community character.

That idea was well-received by some Buckhead community leaders. Sally Silver, an aide to City Councilmember Howard Shook, told the crowd that the concept is “part of the cure.” Before the meeting, Norwood told Young that “the trees are being wiped out, houses are being torn down” for “mega-mansions” in Buckhead, adding, “I got plenty of people here who will come march in the streets” for improved preservation ordinances.

Attendees could sticker-vote on some preservation ideas from other cities. (John Ruch)

However, several residents – including the chairs of two of Buckhead’s Neighborhood Planning Units – expressed a lack of faith in the city’s response to their current efforts to limit redevelopment and preserve neighborhoods.

“We have a lot of tools in the toolbox, but they’re not being used,” said NPU-A chair Brink Dickerson, complaining that city development staff often approves controversial projects over his group’s objections. “One thing we’re missing is integrity in the system we have now.”

“I’ve been to so many meetings where I put stickers on things,” said NPU-B chair Nancy Bliwise, but when it comes to the recommendation votes her group takes, “so many times, we are ignored.” Bliwise, who is an Emory University professor, complained of sexism from officials as well. “I’ve been referred to as a ‘lady’ or ‘housewife’ enough times, I want to make them say doctor,” she said.

Another resident said she got no support from the city or NPU-B for attempting to preserve a Peachtree Road building that is a historic book bindery and once housed the legendary bookstore Oxford, Too. “Unless Buckhead saves Buckhead, it’s not going to be saved,” she said.

Kim Shorter, an NPU-B board member, expressed concern about various parts of the zoning code rewrite, such as the Tree Protection Ordinance, being done separately. “So we come up with all these lofty ideas, but meanwhile, historic preservation is sitting off here on an island by itself,” she said.

“I would acknowledge that,” Young said, adding that staff will talk about melding all of the ideas into the final zoning code. “But there’s no question the silo-ing of conversations isn’t working as well as it [should].”

Another question was whether the city would provide proper staffing to carry out any new historic preservation policies. That point was raised by Karen Heubner, a former Urban Design Commission executive director, who was controversially laid off amid staffing cuts in 2008. She said she now volunteer with the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation.

For more information about the “Future Places Project,” see the Department of City Planning pages on the city website.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.