How’s this for irony? The concept of historic preservation in neighborhoods across America is often praised not only for its ability to protect historically and architecturally significant structures-but also for maintaining or perhaps even renewing a certain community spirit as neighbors work side by side in the common goal of preserving a little piece of the past. While historic zoning should ideally bring a community together through a common goal of protecting the historic and architectural
value of a neighborhood, the proposal to place an H-1 overlay on the Ayleford area has resulted in division and antagonism.
But an even greater irony may be in store for Aylesford residents-for both proponents and opponents- should the overlay be approved. That’s because H-1 has no jurisdiction over the problems many residents are citing as their pro-H-1 rationale-problems which include high density housing, insufficient parking for homeowners, absentee landlords, and demolition by neglect.
H-1 may be a solution-particularly when it comes to preserving the historic character of a neighborhood (where one exists)-just not to these problems.
If you break an arm, do you call your eye doctor for advice? Do you cut off the arm? Sounds extreme, but this has proven to be an extremely contentious debate-pitting neighbor against neighbor where logic often has little to do with the arguments made by either side.
Specifically, H-1 zoning may provide assurances for the residents that the neighborhood’s character will remain the way it is today-physically speaking. But those wanting to use historic zoning to keep out U.K. students may be surprised to learn that an H-1 ordinance does not dictate land use, leaving room for developers to continue building housing complexes.
The question that must be answered here: what is it that supporters of the Aylesford proposal really want? Without a doubt, preservation is critical, but do the goals of either side of this debate have much to do with history and preservation of architectural character?
While the argument over whether or not the H-1 proposal will prove a benefit or a detriment to the neighborhood is not likely to be easily resolved, it may serve all parties involved to take a closer look at a few things before combatants head into the second round of public hearings. What follows is an evaluation of the Aylesford situation based on outlines of claims both for and against the H-1 overlay and some clarification of what exactly it means to be in a historic district.
A neighborhood divided
As evidenced by February’s public hearing to discuss a proposed H-1 overlay for the Aylesford neighborhood area, though, historic zoning, at least in this case, has sparked heated debates, elicited more than one inflammatory and/or indignant letter to the editor (both at ACE and at the daily paper) and perhaps even pitted neighbor against neighbor. Any sense of harmony has long since been replaced by division and antagonism.
While the argument over whether or not the H-1 proposal will prove a benefit or a detriment to the neighborhood is not likely to be easily resolved, it may serve all parties involved to take a closer look at a few things before combatants head into another round of public hearings (June 25). What follows is an evaluation of the Aylesford situation based on outlines of claims both for and against the H-1 overlay and an explanation and, more importantly, clarification of what exactly it means to be in a historic district.
Do the ayes have it?
In general, the advantages of zoning a particular area or neighborhood a historic district are many. The most obvious of these is the assurance that historically or architecturally significant buildings will be protected from the hands of indiscriminate owners and profit-motivated developers.
On just an architectural level, Lexington’s 12 current historic districts have meant the preservation of nearly two centuries of design reflecting the styles of Greek revival, Italianate, and Federal, to name just a few.
In turn, as Bettie Kerr, Lexington’s Historic Preservation Officer, notes, this protection encourages the “stability of a neighborhood” as it provides “assurance that [residents’] property will be in a hub of properties that will stay the same.”
With stability comes other benefits. U.K. Professor of History, Daniel Rowland, who is an expert on and advocate of historic preservation, cites several rewards of the stability offered in a historic district. Among these is the increased value of homes within the district. On both a local and national level, studies indicate that property values in historic districts appreciate at least at the level of other areas in a given town and often at a level considerably higher than non-historic areas.
There can also be some less expected but nonetheless valuable benefits as well. Although living in an H-1 district means that one must go through an approval process, often involving hearings before the Board of Architectural Review (BOAR), the hassles and delays inherent in the process can be offset by the information provided by experts on architecture and construction.
According to Rowland, “Nine times out of 10, the result is best for the owner.”
An example is the use of newer materials on a house. Vinyl siding has become a popular option for many budget-minded homeowners. Rowland notes, however, that many older buildings have no vapor barrier. In a nutshell, this means that the use of vinyl siding, which provides a fairly airtight skin to a house, can actually result in serious damages (and thus costs) as moisture is trapped between a house’s frame and the vinyl-siding. This is the kind of information that would be provided by the BOAR and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), although probably not by a vinyl siding contractor.
Interestingly, all of these potential benefits of historic zoning are not the prominent or typical reasons cited by proponents of the H-1 overlay in Aylesford. While some residents did mention that they like the financial gains afforded by increased property values, terms like “architectural significance” and “historic protection and preservation” were nowhere to be found in most of the debate.
Instead, the call for historic zoning appears to be a direct response to the several new apartment complexes built in the area that mainly serves U.K. students.
Another complaint cited is the increasing numbers of absentee landlords who do not have the same vested interest in maintaining their property as do the regular, single family homeowners. As local business owner and Aylesford resident Steve Baron argues, “My neighborhood is my home, not a playground for developers. It’s discouraging to see people with no interest in it dictating what the neighborhood will be.”
While both of these complaints involve housing that is mainly targeted at students, this request for historic zoning is not, for the most part, an attempt to keep these students out of the Aylesford neighborhood. (At least “this is their story and they’re sticking to it,” but it’s quite obvious that the changes they want will result in a much lower student population.) Baron adds that one of the nicer aspects of this neighborhood is its diversity. “There are students and older residents, people of various incomes, and both owners and renters.” What Baron sees happening, though, is that “Student housing is pushing out others-destroying that diversity.”
In essence, the crux of the debate for H-1 supporters in Aylesford seems to be the goal of ending student housing developments and the deterioration of houses owned by absentee landlords.
On the Nay Side of the Street
If the first public hearing to discuss historic zoning in Aylesford was any indication, there may be quite a few more opponents to the overlay than there are supporters. Arguments against the zoning come from homeowners and business owners alike, though their reasons may differ.
Starting with the homeowners, the arguments run the gamut from infringing on the rights of property owners to zoning too large an area, many parts of which are not deemed to have much historical significance. The overwhelming concern, however, is the potential costs that may have to be incurred by living in a historic district.
Attorney Ted Cowen, who lives on the periphery of the proposed Aylesford zone, views cost as a major consideration with historic zoning. In his part of the neighborhood, Cowen says, “Many houses are owned by elderly folks with fixed incomes. Should they have additional costs imposed on them?”
Indeed, many lower and middle income families throughout the Aylesford area are worried that they will no longer be able to afford their homes if the overlay is approved. Those with slate or tile roofs and the older multi-paned wood windows fear that the cost of replacing these items with similar materials will be more than they can afford.
Cowen goes on to say that he sees “the predominant reason people want H-1 is to keep students out.” But if H-1 succeeds in driving students out of the area, or at least preventing greater numbers from coming in, Cowen says that any problems that Aylesford residents perceive will simply be exported to the surrounding neighborhoods.
For business owners, especially the small, single owner businesses like those in the Woodland Triangle area, there is a united voice of opposition to H-1 zoning. Mike Courtney, owner of Black Swan Books, states that H-1 would be “quite a hindrance.”
In addition to the cost concerns of the homeowners, Courtney notes the additional costs to businesses due to the process required to make changes to a building. Courtney says, “Everyone around here is primarily a single owner with one or two employees.” This could mean that businesses would have to close down in order attend meetings and hearings for changes such as a new sign. (If business owners want to express these concerns at the next public hearing, they will have to close shop then as well as the June 25 meeting has been scheduled for 2:00 in the afternoon.). Others also see the loss of students in the area as a potential loss of business.
Courtney sums up the feelings of several area business owners when he says, “Everything is well kept and maintained. We don’t think we need the city telling us how to maintain it.”
The System: What It Does and Doesn’t Do
After discussions with residents both for and against the H-1 overlay in Aylesford, one thing soon became painfully clear: there are a lot of misconceptions of what is meant by historic zoning, what it requires and what process owners must go through in order to make changes to their homes or businesses.
A major misconception has to do with the city requiring owners to maintain their property in a certain way. According to Bettie Kerr and the “Guidebook for Property Owners” distributed by the Division of Historic Preservation, living in a historic district does not mean that owners must maintain their property in one certain way; it does not dictate that improvements be made; and it does not determine use of property (which, by the same token, doesn’t seem to solve the problem of “absentee landlords” and their annoying habit of “demolition by neglect”). While this may not be enough to completely assuage residents’ fears concerning costs, it should at least dispel a common belief among many residents regarding the power that the city has in these matters.
Another major misconception has to do with the process that an owner must go through to make changes to his or her property. When an owner living in an historic district wants to make a change, there is a standard procedure to follow. First the owner must submit the idea in order to receive a certificate of approval (COA). The Division of Historic Preservation (DHP) will review the idea and take one of two steps. If the proposed change is considered a “routine” or “minor” item, it is within the DHP staff’s power to grant approval. Such items include many different types of replacement work. The turnaround time for staff approval can be as short as 24 hours.
Often (about 60 percent of the time), the staff will refer the request to the BOAR. This typically occurs when the requested change involves major rehabilitation, new construction or demolition. Whenever a request is referred to the BOAR, the BOAR meets to discuss the request on a case-by-case basis, and a public hearing allows neighbors of the property owner to express the opinions and ideas on the proposed change. The BOAR may require the owner to provide architectural or landscaping plans (which can mean a significant expense for the owner.) If the BOAR then grants approval, a COA is issued.
But review and approval are not required for every little change that a property owner may want to make. Ordinary maintenance and repair-defined as “the correction of minor deterioration to site and building elements and structures when repairs are made with the same materials with the same size, shape, configuration, style, texture and material color”-does not require design review. For example, no approval is needed for maintaining a fence or repairing a broken window. Also, no review is necessary for changes made to the interior of a building which don’t affect the exterior appearance. No approval is required for changing the paint color of previously painted surfaces.
For all those changes that do require approval the Historic Preservation Commission has adopted a set of written design guidelines to aid all parties involved in the review process. According to these design guidelines, they “set parameters within which exterior changes should occur, yet maintain ample opportunity for design creativity and individual choice.” Thus, they are broad enough to leave the owner with several options.
Although the goal of the HPC and the establishment of these guidelines is to ensure that property remains as close as possible to its original design, Kerr says that the BOAR “always takes expense into consideration.” She goes on to assert that “everything is considered within reason.”
For example, residents that must replace a deteriorating slate or clay tile roof are not required to replace it with the same materials. Also, financial hardships are taken into consideration when determining what will be required for changes.
Of course, whenever a system leaves this much room for varying interpretations and decisions, complaints are inevitable. But Kerr feels that the advantages of historic zoning far outweigh the disadvantages. She also notes that, of the approximately 300 cases reviewed each year, “There is an approval rate of 93-95 percent.”
In addition to all of the things that H-1 zoning does, there is one thing that it definitely does not do: it does not affect the use of property.
Thus, if an area in an historic district is zoned to allow the development of duplexes or larger apartment complexes, these can still be developed under H-1 zoning, although the new buildings will have to comply with the existing architecture in the area.
One final aspect of historic zoning that has often been called into question with the Aylesford proposal is exactly how the boundaries for the proposed zone were determined. Kerr is quick to point out that the boundaries are not based on any political lines. In other words, although members of the Aylesford Neighborhood Association applied for the historic designation, the actual boundaries of the proposed zoning depended on factors other than what’s included within the Association’s area.
Kerr says that the boundaries for Aylesford were determined by the history of development in this area. According to Kerr, it’s not necessarily a particular building in the Aylesford area that has historic significance but rather “the picture of the whole.” “What’s important,” Kerr continues, “is that [the proposed Aylesford area] shows you the evolution of this area within a 50-year window. Kerr notes the great diversity achieved over the course of the area’s development.
What’s Best (or Next) for Aylesford?
This is certainly a difficult question and one that cannot easily be answered. Despite Kerr’s reasoning behind determining the boundaries of the overlay district, the sheer size of the area will remain a sticking point for many. Not only does it dwarf existing historic districts in Lexington, but it includes too many areas that the average resident does not see as being historically or architecturally significant.
Even Rowland finds that much of the controversy to the Aylesford proposal is a result of the proponents’ “tactical error to try to bite off such a big mouthful.”
But should the boundaries be redrawn to make the Aylesford district a smaller area, the question of whether or not an H-1 overlay is best for this neighborhood will still remain.
At the heart of the issue is what supporters of H-1 zoning in Aylesford wish to accomplish. If the preservation of buildings in what is deemed a historically significant neighborhood is driving the effort, then H-1 would certainly be a viable means of protection.
However, given a debate that is dominated by talk about students and obtrusive vinyl-sided complexes being built to house these students, the issues shift. If residents simply don’t like students being in the neighborhood, then a fairly straightforward response is appropriate: Tough.
Lexington is a college town, and students have a right to live here just as much as anyone else.
If, however, the concern is not with the students themselves but the effect that large apartment complexes and houses owned by absentee landlords has on the condition of the neighborhood, then H-1 does not resolve this problem, especially since it doesn’t make any requirements on land use.
Even Kerr admits, “If the goal is to have single family homes, H-1 is not the proper tool.”
This is not to say that preservation is not appropriate for parts of the Aylesford area. But if the primary motive for having H-1 is to limit the number of existing houses falling into a state of disrepair due to unconcerned absentee landlords and the development of new duplexes and apartments, there are other, more feasible, and perhaps less controversial, ways of accomplishing this.
Because, despite the benefits of historic zoning, residents jumping on the H-1 bandwagon for a solution that it cannot solve may be soon be facing much more than they bargained for.
The next meeting regarding the proposed H-1 overlay for Aylesford is at 2 pm, June 25, at the corner of MLK and Main.
[Todd Piccirilli is a free-lance writer who does not live in the Aylesford Neighborhood. This is the first in a series of articles on neighborhood and zoning issues.]
One option that is worth looking into is downzowning. Much of the Aylesford area is zoned R-2 which allows the renting of houses, duplexes and larger complexes to multiple people. By downzoning to R-1, residents may be able to solve the problems they see with renting to U.K students while not placing unwanted limitations on the average homeowner.
Although he supports the H-1 proposal, resident Steve Baron recognizes that there are legitimate concerns with H-1 and supports the idea of neigborhood-wide downzoning to R-1, which his street already has. The process for getting downzoned is much like anything else. A proposal must go before both the Planning Commission and the Council before being approved. Baron said that the process took approximately six months. H-1 has already been in the works for well over a year, if you include the neighborhood association’s groundwork.
Another potential solution for troubled Aylesford residents is the requirement of residential parking permits. This could greatly decrease the number of U.K. commuters who crowd neighborhood streets during the day in order to avoid paying for a permit in student parking lots.
In discussions with people in the many communities across the country that participate in some form of preservation through historic zoning, one common point emerges: most everyone favors preservation, but the system by which this is accomplished will always be questioned and ridiculed.
It’s certainly true that living in a historic zone means extra hassles when it comes to making changes to a home or business, but there are many who feel that the value gained from preserving everything from a particular architecturally significant building to the community that is formed through these old style neighborhoods far outweighs the sacrifices required by historic zoning.
Both here in Lexington and in Charleston, S.C., a city respected worldwide for its historic preservation efforts, we find, despite the headaches that must be endured, success can be the end result of historic zoning.
Of the twelve current historic districts in Lexington, a brief look at just one of these-South Hill in this case-can serve as an illustration of exactly how historic zoning has the potential to be successful on several different levels. The South Hill district is historically significant for a number of reasons. Not only does it represent a large period (1820-1920) of development in Lexington, but, according to a guidebook prepared by the Division of Historic Preservation, “A large proportion of Lexington’s major public, political, legal, military, financial, cultural, educational and religious leaders have lived in the district.”
Unfortunately, given the area’s proximity to both downtown and the U.K campus, this history was beginning to fall victim to development needs. But concerned residents in the area fought for and received protection for the neighborhood through an H-1 overlay in 1976 (the 300 block had been designated an H-1 zone in 1972).
South Hill resident Daniel Rowland, a U.K. professor of history and expert on historic preservation, said that the catalyst behind the neighborhood’s quest for H-1 zoning was “the demolition of houses for a Civic Center parking lot.” It wasn’t long before “the whole neighborhood mobilized to collect signatures,” Rowland recalled.
For Rowland, the benefits of historic zoning are many. The most important of these is simply the protection from destruction through development afforded by the H-1 ordinance. “Without the protection,” he states, “the neighborhood wouldn’t survive very long.” And when these neighborhoods are left in tact, they serve as a major document of the community’s past. As Prof. Rowland explained, “People know who they are by the buildings around them.”
In addition, Rowland sees that historic zoning in South Hill has resulted in control over the ambiance of the neighborhood, an increase in property value and an even a stronger sense of community as the whole process of maintaining and improving one’s home, should these things require BOAR approval, allows a forum for discussion for the entire neighborhood.
For Charleston, S.C., historic preservation is not only what ensures this city’s identity but it is at the heart of the community’s vitality.
According to Debbi Rhoad, Preservation Planner of Charleston’s Architecture and Preservation Division, “Tourism is one of the city’s biggest businesses, and old buildings are a major draw.”
However, this, along with the city’s longtime recognition for making tremendous strides in preservation efforts, doesn’t necessarily mean that residents always look upon the process of historic zoning with an approving eye. Like Lexington, Charleston has both a preservation staff and a board of architectural review. Also similar is the fact that requests are handled on a case-by-case basis. One major difference, though, is the lack of any written design guidelines. Although Rhoad said that this leaves room for flexibility, it is also true that this can lead to some controversy whenever rulings are viewed to be inconsistent, as one recent case involving a mural painted on the side of a building demonstrated.
As Rhoad acknowledged, though, “Architecture can be a very subjective thing,” which means that people may not always see eye to eye on what kinds of changes are appropriate and what aren’t. Fortunately for Rhoad, she can say that “the consensus is that there are more successes than failures.” While it is difficult to pinpoint one aspect of the Charleston system that guarantees a greater number of success stories, there is one more difference between that city and Lexington that really stands out. Last year, 1850 requests came into the Architecture and Preservation Division office, and of those only 250 went to the board. That means close to 90 percent of all requests merely go before the staff, and that in turn means a much quicker turnaround time between submission of request and approval and no need to hire an architect for detailed plans. In comparison, Lexington’s BOAR sees 60 percent of requests while only 40 percent are handled by the staff only.
Lessons Learned in Old Louisville:
Homeowners, Landlords, Students and Historic Preservation
By Rodman P. Botkins
Nestled between downtown Louisville and the University of Louisville Belknap campus is the historic neighborhood of Old Louisville. Occupying the Victorian era homes of this neighborhood is a diverse mix of homeowners and renters, including many college students.
One of the city’s five historic districts [Lexington has twice that many districts in a metropolitan area less than half the size of the River City], Old Louisville was first zoned historic in 1974. It is important to note that while Old Louisville’s geographic proximity in relation to the city and the U of L campus is similar to the Aylesford neighborhood, there are some obvious differences. The majority of the Louisville homes were constructed in the second half of the 19th century, giving a relative similarity to their three-story brick designs.
But the neighborhood does provide some useful examples of what problems historic overlays do and do not solve.
More Flies with Honey…
Joanne Weeter, an historic preservation officer with the Landmarks Commission-the government association that oversees historic preservation in Louisville-points out that some landlords have embraced historic zoning. Underhill Associates, which owns and manages 700 rental units and several commercial properties in Louisville, many in Old Louisville, has won several awards for their historic renovations. According to the company, 40 of Underhill’s properties are listed on the National Register of Historic Homes. Underhill’s success can be attributed to tax incentives to renovate income-producing properties. Legislation in Congress currently may assist private homeowners if passed.
Historic zoning does not necessarily spell disaster for landlords.
Building a Community
Another business owner in Old Louisville says she benefits from the neighborhood’s historic significance.
“It creates a lot of red tape. But I think it’s a good thing because it protects the neighborhood’s integrity,” Marianne Lesher, owner of the Old Louisville Inn, one of 10 bed and breakfasts in the neighborhood.
However, Lesher credits the neighborhood’s historic preservation to the strong neighborhood associations and not the city government. In her experience, the city has neglected Old Louisville in regards to maintenance, services and historic zoning enforcement. Next door to the inn is a property with nine code violations, she said. Lesher said the problem stems from the fact that an absentee landlord owns the building and the fines for violating historic zoning are too low.
So historic zoning does not fix every problem. “That’s our dilemma, as far as living in an historic neighborhood, you have to get the city behind you.”
Within Old Louisville, there are 11 neighborhood associations. These associations allied themselves as the Old Louisville Neighborhood Council to further preservation efforts.
In describing Old Louisville as a “village community,” Deborah Stewart, the council’s chairwoman, said historic zoning needs to be coupled with other laws to make it effective.
“Downzoning is a way to protect properties from investors who want to come in and abuse them,” Stewart said. Downzoning changes an area’s current zoning back to its original use-single family residential in Old Louisville’s case.
Stewart said it is not the council’s goal to eliminate renters. Stewart values the diverse population of the neighborhood. But it keeps investors from tearing down historic buildings to build new rental property-a goal that cannot be accomplished by historic zoning alone.
Mary Martin, a real estate agent and Old Louisville resident, agrees that downzoning is the most effective way to deal with problem landlords. Downzoning “doesn’t change the preservation, but does change the ability of people to put in apartments.”
However, large scale downzoning has not taken place in Old Louisville. Stewart, who is also a real estate agent, advises sellers of historic property to place deed restrictions on the property’s future use. Currently, deed restrictions are the only legal recourse when it comes to property use, she said.
“If we are to have these lovely structures to pass onto the next generation, we have to stem the tide of demolition and abuse. And that takes regulation,” Stewart said.
Another tool used to handle rental property from a behavior standpoint is Louisville’s Nuisance Ordinance, Stewart said. The ordinance allows police to force the eviction of tenants if the police are called to a property too often.
But the best way to ensure historic preservation takes place boils down to money, Stewart said. “If you get enough money in an area and enough people investing in the recovery of these old homes … the slumlords are going to have to go someplace else to find property to abuse.”
The 800-Pound Gorilla
Speaking of landlords, state institutions are not required to follow historic zoning ordinances, Jane Cassady, community service and certified local government coordinator with the Kentucky Heritage Council, said. This is important because the University of Kentucky borders the Aylesford neighborhood. “But once again, if the institution sees that the community around them is trying to form some cohesion, to be a good neighbor, they will try to honor that.”
Cassady also points out that historic zoning is not going to solve all of the Aylesford neighborhood’s problems. “And that is really where the problem lies: people think historic designation overlay zoning is going to control land use. And what Old Louisville is trying to do is to get downzoning because they are now realizing that zoning is the only way to control further issues to reduce the [population] density,” Cassady said.
Unlike Old Louisville, the Aylesford neighborhood is more diverse in its architecture. “I think you have such a combination of building styles and of uses, I mean it’s a very complex neighborhood, and it’s huge,” Cassady said. The historic preservation guidelines are probably going to have to be tailored in such a way as to follow the period of development in which the buildings were constructed.
“All of these things should be driven by neighborhood conversation. The best design guidelines are usually written with the residents,” Cassady said.
Whether or not historic zoning will price apartment rents beyond the UK students’ budgets remains to be seen. But a survey of apartment rates in Old Louisville shows they average between $350 and $550 per month. Though Louisville, in general, exhibits a lower cost of living than Lexington.
Rodman P. Botkins is a free-lance writer who does not live in either Old Louisville or Aylesford neighborhoods.