Historically troubled

Dorothy McMichen is proud of her Concord Street house. It's a 1920s-era building that she converted into an office for her law practice. In fact, the revamping was so successful, she bought the house next door and plans to remodel it as well.

In about a month, her plans may have to be changed.

Coming up for review by the City Council is the possible historic districting of Colonialtown South, a relatively small neighborhood -- 314 homes -- just south of State Road 50 and east of Mills Avenue.

And while neighborhood association advocates say that this could be the last area to be considered for approval for a long time, some owners are saying it shouldn't be considered at all.

If Colonialtown South becomes a historic district, McMichen will be unable to make certain additions or changes to her new house -- such as the picket fence and handicapped-access banisters on her first property -- without a go-ahead from the Historic Preservation Board.

"They're telling me that I can't do what I want to do," says McMichen of some rules in the proposed ordinance. "You `won't be able to` put up awnings or dark film on the windows to keep the sun out" -- which she did to her law office.

The banisters are another issue: Under historic-district guidelines, the $50 rails her husband made would not be allowed. McMichen would have to put in $2,000 wrought-iron banisters instead.

Those possible costs helped sway her opinion against historic districting. And she's joined in her opposition by many business owners and some residents.

"This opposition is nothing new," says Sue McNamara, interim coordinator of the Neighborhood Association Coalition. She points out that every downtown neighborhood faced similar concerns when they began the historic-districting process.

Colonialtown South's demographics, however, may be a different issue. Around 50 percent of the properties in the neighborhood are businesses.

The opposition got its first chance to go on record at the Oct. 6 Historic Preservation Board meeting at City Hall, facing a larger -- and sometimes more vocal -- group of historic-preservationists.

"Historic preservation will take away the right of owners to develop property the way they want," resident David Nelson told the board.

Sue Sevlie, a supporter of the designation, argued that area businesses are "eroding" into the community. But opponents pointed out that those businesses are already an integral part of the area.

"Drive down Ferncreek Avenue and take a look," said attorney Julian Dominick Jr., whose business is located on the two-lane street. "You'll see businesses, parking lots ... no bungalows.

"I'd like to do what I want with my property," he added. "I think it's a vested right."

Many Colonialtown South office buildings are either blocky, '70s-era buildings -- a result of that decade's strip-zoning -- or older homes converted into offices. Area business owners, many of whom are also residents, want to be able to improve such properties.

Historic-district supporters are afraid of those "improvements." "Not everybody is as careful as we'd like them to be," explained a Lake Lawsona resident in attendance. But supporters said their biggest fear was that the bungalows that make the area unique would be bulldozed for other developments -- either office buildings or cheap housing like duplexes.

In the end, the Historic Preservation Board pushed the ordinance to the next level of the approval process -- a review before the Municipal Planning Board. There the issue of land use was considered. Opponents hoped the board would at least change the boundaries of the proposed district so that fewer businesses were affected. Ferncreek Avenue, which runs right down the middle of the district, was suggested for exclusion.

But in the face of supporters, who said that the boundary change won't work, the redistricting was knocked down.

"It would `have been` a disaster," said Bill Sevlie, president of the neighborhood association. "It would split it into two historic districts."

The historic-preservation issue still must be reviewed at two City Council meetings in November, with a final say coming sometime in December. Until then, the battle continues.

"It's a polarized situation, it's not working well," business owner Bill Fomar told the board. "We're not really communicating."

Board member and Colonialtown South resident Penny Jacobs doesn't see an easy resolution. "I just don't think there's going to be an ordinance written that both sides can agree on."

McMichen, meanwhile, worries about the problems she may have in getting approval on her second house's renovations. "It's just distressing. Something that looks nice, you can't have" under the proposed ordinance. "I just don't want to go through that layer of bureaucracy."

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