What’s worth preserving

Would a time traveler from the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, walking through one of Chapel Hill’s historic districts, recognize the neighborhood?

Amber Kidd, a preservationist with the N.C. Historic Preservation Office who advises local governments on how to set up and run a Historic District Commission, put that question to Chapel Hill’s Historic District Commissioners at a work session last Saturday at Town Hall.

The answer: Probably not.

A lack of support from state lawmakers who codified that an HDC can’t deny permission to demolish a historic home, combined with increasing development pressure and the town having no planner with specialized knowledge of historic preservation for more than a decade, add up to gaping holes in our ability to preserve the homes that make up our gracious historic districts.

Chapel Hill has three historic districts: Franklin-Rosemary, established in 1976, and Cameron-McCauley and Gimghoul, both designated in 1990. Every property owner who wants to renovate the exterior or build a new home in a historic district must first obtain the approval of the HDC so that the historic districts retain their special character and not turn into any other neighborhood of gracious homes on large lots. The Oaks, for instance, is a lovely neighborhood, but no one would come in from out of town to tour it.

The HDC is not the “pretty police.” Historic districts are resources worth preserving. They comprise slices of history of a town intertwined with the nation’s oldest public university. Many homes in our historic districts were built for renowned professors who helped make UNC the well-regarded school it is today.

A well-preserved historic district draws tourists, whose stays in hotels and dinners out contribute to a town’s tax revenue. Eroding the special character of historic districts reduces their importance as revenue generators.

But the HDC is under-resourced in this battle. The Historic District Guidelines are decades out of date and often conflict with town zoning guidelines, leading property owners to pick and choose which to follow.

HDC commissioners have been lobbying for years for a staff member well-versed in historic preservation who can work with property owners to make sure their application is complete and abides by the guidelines. The lack of an expert on staff contributes to delays in the approval process, frustration and wasted time of applicants and HDC commissioners alike.

There is no shortage of qualified preservationists for hire. Raleigh had so many excellent candidates that HDC commissioners asked, only half-jokingly, whether Kidd would steer the unchosen finalists to Chapel Hill.

Kidd applauded the HDC’s efforts to educate buyers, builders, architects and real estate brokers about what can and can’t be done to a historic home. She congratulated their applying for a grant to pay for help in updating the guidelines and keeping the pressure on to hire a preservationist.

These steps can’t reverse the damage already done. But they can slow future deterioration. And we will still have remnants of our history for generations to come.
— Nancy Oates

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4 Comments

  1. Terri

     /  January 23, 2018

    I enthusiastically support the hiring of a preservationist. But I also think Chapel Hill needs to lead the way in changing the way we think about historic preservation. Right now, we preserve architecture. But what if we turned that slightly and combined not just architecture but also the sense of local neighborhoods/districts that have historical significance to the town.

    For example, under current law, there is no way to preserve Northside. I’m not talking about keeping students out, I’m talking about history.

    Northside/Sunset/Potters Field was home to a thriving black business district, home of the black workers at the University after the Civil War. Why wouldn’t we want the citizens of future Chapel Hill to know and experience some of that history. Thankfully that’s happening through the Jackson Center.

    Down MLK, there’s a small neighborhood of ranch houses that was our first real suburb, built to house the veterans of WWII who came to attend and work at UNC. Is it worth preserving, even though it is not grand architecture?

    How to we balance preservation with the needs of the present?

    So many important questions that don’t get addressed.

  2. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  January 23, 2018

    I am always impressed with Hillsborough’s many historic markers, which are worth a walk through town to read. Why does Chapel Hill have so few (only 2 that I can find)?

  3. Nancy

     /  January 27, 2018

    Terri, the HDC is charged with preserving the “special character” of historic districts and frequently makes the argument to applicants that the spacious lawns contribute to the historic character. But the commissioners have no one on staff to back them up. The neighborhood of brick ranches you mentioned is probably Elkin Hills, and the neighbors fought long and hard to gain Neighborhood Conservation District status. Even so, the council at the time approved “accessory dwellings” of up to 1,000 sft, in a neighborhood where many of the existing houses aren’t that big.

  4. Bob Epting

     /  January 30, 2018

    Thanks Nancy for your excellent summary of the importance of the work of the Historic District Commission.

    Bob Epting
    HDC Chair

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