OPINION: Near Beltline, a battle about using the old to limit the new

New development near Manuel’s Tavern. Photo by Bill Torpy

New development near Manuel’s Tavern. Photo by Bill Torpy

The Poncey-Highland neighborhood is witnessing the most recent skirmish on the front lines of the Battle of Atlanta. Instead of cannon fire and Minié balls, this war is waged with bulldozers and cranes.

The small neighborhood, which is less than a mile wide with maybe 2,000 residents, sits on the eastern edge of the wildly growing Beltline. Big things are happening here fast. So some neighbors are scurrying to head off that growth, or at least get a handle on it.

There lies the problem, one that threatens to pit neighbor against neighbor. A group of residents started the process to create a historic district that would give the neighborhood a chance to determine what kinds of development it would get.

The effort backfired as the neighborhood association’s top three picks to head the board, including its longtime president, were unceremoniously defeated last week by a crowd that packed the meeting, worried the preservation buffs were a small cabal trying to jam through their initiative.

The debate carried the issues inherent in these type of disputes: Historic preservation. Property rights. Affordable housingMcMansionsGrowth. Stability. The threat of unintended consequences. And, this being Atlanta, worries about governmental overreach and red tape.

The effort to create a historic district “is a pushback against uncontrolled development,” said Steve Cushing, a resident of 27 years. “Without this, developers can do more for less.”

It’s not so much mere growth that Cushing and others worry about, “it’s the cheap, trashy growth,” he said. “We want development keeping with the character of the neighborhood.”

A demolition team destroys a section of ceiling at the Kroger at 725 Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta in December 2016. After the teardown of the building long known as “Murder Kroger,” a mixed-use tower, including a new Kroger, was erected. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

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The district is bounded on the east by Moreland Avenue, the west by the Beltline, the north by Ponce de Leon Avenue and the south by Freedom Parkway. The district includes Manuel’s tavern, Murder Kroger, the Clermont Hotel and its infamous strip club, some reconverted industrial buildings and several blocks of brick homes built in the early 1900s.

The effort has been brewing for several months. Earlier in the year, two streets near the Clermont created their own mini-historic district when residents worried a builder was assembling single-family lots to squeeze in multifamily units.

Lisa Malaney, who works on public-use issues on the board, told me neighborhood advocates found themselves “playing whack-a-mole” in trying to keep up with continual development plans that were “out of character” for the community.

They discovered that a historic district, or some sort of hybrid, might give residents a say in what kinds of things can be built. A city rep told the crowd at the meeting on Dec. 18 that the neighborhood could draw up some guidelines particular to the community. This would happen in the next couple of months and would ultimately require an OK from the City Council.

Such an ordinance would prevent the wholesale destruction of edifices determined to be “historic” or “culturally significant.”

In such districts, exterior improvements must be in line with the existing feel of the neighborhood. Advocates, however, say the plan would allow homeowners to make significant improvements to a house, such as adding a second story, so long as it didn’t look like a double-wide trailer had been plopped atop the original abode.

“We’re pioneering with the city to work on this new tool, a creative regulatory tool with a historic preservation component,” said Malaney. “But it’s very hard to use the term ‘historic district’ without having people shut you out.”


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Residents at the meeting talked about Ponce de Leon, a busy street that is a hodgepodge of commercial businesses and was for decades the running ground of street people and prostitutes. That’s changing now, as money rolls into the neighborhood. But such improvements bring other concerns.

“I don’t want developers to have their version of Ponce. I want it to be our version of Ponce,” Malaney told the gathering. “It will give us the opportunity to say what our neighborhood will look like as it develops.”

During the discussion, Tom Carmichael approached with a counter: “It seems like you want control. I’ve been managing (properties in the area) for 42 years and doing it well.”

Later, a bit flustered, he added, “So, you want to manage my apartments for me?”

Tom Carmichael, owner of the Highland Inn and many other Poncey-Highland properties, says the effort to create a historic district will hurt him financially and make it harder to keep affordable housing. He’s shown here with his son, Thomas. (Photo by Bill Torpy)

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Carmichael doesn’t live in the neighborhood, but he has been there longer than most residents and owns a lot of properties. He owns the Highland Inn, where the neighborhood meeting was held, as well as the long row of gray, three-story apartment buildings that line Highland and then North avenues.

“This was a flop house,” he said of the old hotel. “We fixed it up. Now you call this historic. This place was bad news.”

Before the meeting, Carmichael told me, “They say we’re an evil force who will do something bad to the properties we own.”

Residents in the Poncey-Highland neighborhood worry that these apartments along North and Highland avenues may one day be demolished to create a mega development there. The owner says there are no such plans. Photo by Bill Torpy

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Carmichael is clearly perplexed as to how this sneaked up on him. “This thing just blindsided me. It just hit me upside the head,” he said. “We’ll have no control.”

Carmichael said he’s not going to tear down the apartments, as some contend. But he doesn’t want his hands tied by intrusive regulations.

“I want (the zoning) open-ended because we don’t know what the future holds,” he said.

Exactly, said Cushing. “I’m not afraid of Carmichael’s development. I’m afraid of who he might sell to.”

But the fear works both ways, said Jerry Finegold, a two-year resident who walked out of the meeting as the neighborhood group’s president-elect.

New Poncey-Highland Neighborhood Association president-elect Jerry Finegold, with wife Alicia. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Finegold)

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Those who packed the room aren’t against historic preservation, “They are afraid of the uncertainty,” Finegold said. “They’re afraid this process is too fast, that it might be worse, and that they can’t undo it.”

The new president said he won’t work to kill the historic preservation effort. But he’s going to spend the next few weeks hitting the pavement to determine what the heck people there really want.