By Collin Kelley and Julie Herron Carson
Beth McDonald and Lisa Malaney have lost count of the number of hours they’ve worked over the last three-plus years to bring the Poncey-Highland Historic District to fruition, but both agree the work is not over yet.
Residents, commercial building owners, Neighborhood Planning Unit-N, and the City of Atlanta approved the plan in mid-September last year, and it’s likely to become a blueprint for other Intown neighborhoods. McDonald and Malaney said the goal of the historic district zoning has always been to preserve the neighborhood’s unique historic character and buildings, while allowing property owners the flexibility to improve their homes and businesses and even construct new buildings.
The 20-street Poncey-Highland neighborhood was originally developed between 1910 and 1940 as Atlantans took advantage of the expanded streetcar system to move out of the central city and into more suburban neighborhoods. Bounded by Ponce de Leon Avenue to the north, Moreland Avenue to the east, Freedom Parkway to the south and the Atlanta Beltline Eastside Trail to the west, the neighborhood includes single-family homes, established businesses, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, apartment and condominium buildings, parks, churches and more.
The arrival of the BeltLine and Ponce City Market turned the spotlight on Poncey-Highland and developers began to circle, McDonald said.
“In 2018, developers approached property owners on Somerset Terrace about selling their bungalows so they could be torn down for townhomes,” McDonald, who was president of the Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association from 2016 to 2019, recalled. “We were playing whack-a-mole with developers, and it became obvious that if we didn’t start doing things differently, there wouldn’t be anything left to preserve.”
Malaney, the PHNA land use chair, said uncertainty about the fate of Briarcliff Plaza – the historic shopping strip at Ponce de Leon and N. Highland that is home to the Plaza Theatre and Majestic Diner – when it was sold 2017 “lit a fire” under her to pursue the historic district zoning.
Two of Poncey-Highland’s streets – Somerset Terrace and Bonaventure – got historic status before the rest of the neighborhood. Located adjacent to the BeltLine, the bungalow-lined streets were under threat by developers.
“After that success, folks wanted to know when something else would be done for the rest of neighborhood,” Malaney said.
The PHNA turned to a familiar face when it came time to guide the neighborhood through the process. Caleb Racicot, community planner and senior principal of Atlanta-based TSW, drafted Poncey-Highland’s original master plan in 2009, and was subsequently re-hired to draft the new zoning.
“I truly believe this new type of Historic District will serve as a model for other neighborhoods across the country,” Racicot said. “Many historic districts are created to ‘freeze’ a neighborhood at a specific moment in time. The Poncey-Highland neighborhood took a much more creative approach that preserves the neighborhood’s unique features, while allowing it to evolve appropriately to meet the needs and desires of future residents and businesses.”
The new historic district designation identifies and defines historic residences as those built up to 1940 and commercial structures built up to 1955 and still largely intact. Staff from the Atlanta Urban Design Commission reviewed these buildings within Poncey-Highland and determined which ones contribute to the neighborhood’s historic character.
In drafting the new zoning, the neighborhood stakeholders agreed they did not want the neighborhood to be frozen in time. While the building facades will be preserved, property owners are permitted to modify and expand buildings in the rear, including additions that increase height. There are no restrictions governing exterior paint colors or residential landscape design.
Racicot explained, “Working with the Urban Design Commission and the City of Atlanta, we created a forward-thinking Historic District that focuses on preserving what we called the ‘Lot Compatibility Zone.’ The zone establishes the most stringent preservation standards on the portion of a lot within 60 feet of a public street. Beyond 60 feet, greater flexibility is allowed. For the most part, this means the forward-facing façades of historically significant buildings will be maintained and protected, but property owners are free to improve and/or expand the rear of their buildings and even add accessory dwelling units in the back. In areas with fewer remaining historic resources, such as along Ponce de Leon Avenue or near the Atlanta Beltline, the new district allows for significant new mid- and high-rise construction, provided all historic buildings are preserved,” Racicot said.
There were naysayers to the plan, mainly from commercial building owners and residents who believed the designation would cost them money or restrict their rights as property owners. Opposition signs were visible along N. Highland Avenue and it sparked often heated debate in online community forums. The majority of Poncey-Highland’s residents were in favor, McDonald said, due to concerns about the loss of historic homes, buildings, and the threat of “McMansions” encroaching into the community.
McDonald said the city would also be using Poncey-Highland’s new zoning status as a model as it begins to rezone other neighborhoods to allow for accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to provide more affordable housing.
“We’ve got provisions for getting affordable housing done without having to tear something down,” McDonald said. “We were very appreciative of the City of Atlanta’s willingness to work with us on this process.”
With the heavy lifting complete, both McDonald and Malaney said there is still education to be done to help the community understand what the historic district zoning means to them, including a user-friendly website and a PHNA historic district committee.
Malaney hopes Poncey-Highland’s work will be a catalyst for other Intown neighborhoods.
“Once people understand what’s possible, I think other neighborhoods might want to do this too,” Malaney said. “Having zoning that speaks and is tailored to a neighborhood gives the community more agency.”