Drew Dekle, who built up the Quality Building on 265 W. Washington St. with tenants including Flicker Theatre and Bar, Clocked! and Iron Factory, has a long history with the building. When he was a child, he would visit his grandfather, who owned the same building during his childhood and he would go to a pool hall between the Morton Theatre and the Quality Building.
“It was kind of a rough place for a 12-year-old, middle-class kid to hang out, but I learned a lot there,” Dekle said. “It was a culture shock — I grew up in suburban Atlanta, and here I am shooting pool with blue-collar, working-class guys.”
As reported in The Red & Black, since his visits to Athens during the 1970s and 1980s, Dekle has seen the change the west side of downtown has gone through while keeping a few of its well-known historic sites, such as the Morton Theatre, the Hot Corner intersection and 40 Watt Club.
To preserve the western side of downtown’s character, the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission has discussed a proposal to designate the area as a local historic district. Since November, the proposal has received vocal supporters and outspoken detractors to commission meetings.
The proposed district designation would mean that property owners would need to complete a multi-step approval process to alter the facades of their buildings, including a Planning Staff
review and a Historic Preservation Commission meeting.
If implemented, Athens First United Methodist Church could be restricted from demolishing a building it owns — the Saye Building — at 110 W. Hancock Ave.
Built in 1920, the historic building has fallen into disrepair, Jill Bateman, the Athens First UMC Building Committee Chair said. She said the church wants to expand its mission and feels the building’s demolition would help the church grow.
“It would be a significant financial burden for us to renovate the current structure,” Bateman said. “The financial implication is where we have seen the greatest need for concern.”
However, advocates for the district say these regulations are necessary to protect the character of the area.
“We want to make sure that we are honoring and preserving the western part of downtown the same way that we have honored and preserved the eastern portion of downtown,” said Tommy Valentine, the executive director of Historic Athens, a non-profit working to preserve local history.
The current local historic district, which only covers parts of east downtown, was adopted in 2006, ACC Assistant Planning Director Bruce Lonnee said in an email. In the email, Lonnee said if the commission approves the newly proposed district, the unprotected area of downtown will be protected by the same guidelines as the current district.
The district would mainly affect property owners’ ability to change the outside of their building. Projects such as demolishing the building, constructing new parking lots and adding additional sections to the building would be more tedious from the local government.
Valentine also would like to preserve the history of Athens minority and working-class communities.
“We’re not just having a discussion about history. We are also having a discussion about race and class and making sure we are telling the entire story of Athens,” Valentine said.
However, attorney David Montgomery, believes the district will negatively impact these businesses. Montgomery said he represents three business owners who run businesses in the proposed historic district, and he spoke on their behalf at a Dec. 3 Mayor and Commission meeting.
Montgomery said he represents Theodore Brown of Brown’s Barber Shop, Homer Wilson of Wilson’s Styling Shop and John Wade, the property owner of the Manhattan Cafe. Montgomery believes preserving these buildings according to the proposed historic guidelines will be expensive and disproportionately burden these men.
“I don’t see the legitimacy of requiring one landowner to keep his building like it is because folks have a cultural interest in [the building] staying like it is,” Montgomery said.
The commission will vote on the proposal before June 2020. The moratorium over western downtown was extended to the end of June 2020 to give the commissioners time to deliberate the proposal without fear of losing historic sites.
In the next few weeks, the Athens-Clarke County Planning Department will schedule community information sessions about the proposal to educate tenants and property owners and answer their questions.
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