The Georgia Trust

PRESERVATION ISSUES

WELCOME BACK TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD

It’s a place where you can walk past rows of restored homes with porch swings and rocking chairs. Where you can bike from your house down to the corner store or catch up at the monthly neighborhood get-together.

Sounds like an idyllic vision from the past, but it’s actually happening in your town and across the state of Georgia.

As the decades-long move away from city cores is beginning to reverse, many historic neighborhoods once abandoned for the suburbs are now ripe for revitalization. And many Georgians are finding that they can indeed enjoy a better quality of life by infusing new vitality in their community’s historic character.

“When I think of the word ‘neighborhood,’ I think of closeness,” says Elizabeth Barker of Historic Columbus Foundation, “not only in proximity to the people around you, but also that feeling of community.” The foundation is helping revitalize the city’s MidTown neighborhoods (above).

“People love the charm of the old neighborhoods—the front porches, the architectural details, the fireplaces, the mantels, the beautiful woodwork,” says Bette-Lou Brown, Executive Director of Historic Macon Foundation, which was recognized with the Trust’s 2004 Marguerite Williams Award for its work in revitalizing the Tatnall Square Heights area.

“I think it adds to the quality of life,” agrees Melissa Jest, neighborhood coordinator with Historic Savannah Foundation. “You have houses that establish a wonderful streetscape, a wonderful rhythm along the sidewalks with planted trees and aged oaks.”

While historic preservation is the leading catalyst, it’s just one piece of the neighborhood revitalization puzzle. Besides restoring vacant and abandoned homes, such an endeavor also involves improving transportation routes and encouraging architecturally and physically compatible new construction. Added parks, bike trails and sidewalks encourage residents and business patrons to get out of their cars and walk around.

And while strolling down tree-lined avenues to the corner coffee shop sounds inviting to local residents, the economic benefits are just as enticing to city governments. A run-down neighborhood full of derelict homes and lots is nowhere near as profitable as one with a robust sense of community.

“Neighborhood revitalization is a tool governments use to boost economic activity,” Jest says. “That’s where we can validate historic preservation to our public officials. The buildings can start to contribute again to the tax revenue that’s needed for public services in the city and county.”

For these reasons and more, The Georgia Trust has created its Living Places: Building Better Neighborhoods program, which works to inform, educate and train community-based organizations to use historic preservation and other neighborhood-oriented strategies to revitalize and strengthen their communities.

“While individual neighborhoods have been revitalized all over Georgia due to great efforts like those spearheaded by Historic Columbus, Historic Macon, Historic Savannah, Thomasville Landmarks and others, hundreds more require additional help,” says Glen Bennett, the Trust’s senior director of preservation services. “Through Living Places, we hope to provide comprehensive statewide outreach, help organize state-supported assistance, and pass along best practices to help revitalize Georgia’s neighborhoods at the community level.”

Intown Living Finds New Popularity
As the trend of returning to an urban center intensifies, historic inner-city neighborhoods such as Macon’s Tatnall Square Heights are now seeing a rebirth.

Since the 1970s, when I-75 construction cut through the area, the neighborhood had fallen more and more into disrepair, riddled with crime and dotted with abandoned and dilapidated homes. About five years ago, Historic Macon Foundation set about purchasing houses through its revolving fund in hopes of turning the neighborhood around.

Neighborhood revitalization works to reduce unsightly sprawl and vacant, unused lots such as this by encouraging a more pedestrian-friendly environment, with aesthetically pleasing architecture and rehabilitated historic structures.

Brown notes that transitioning a deteriorating neighborhood into a vibrant, diverse one results from careful, comprehensive planning. A neighborhood revitalization plan should work to ensure that existing residents are able to stay, while also making it attractive to househunters. Identifying the potential of the area is the first step.

“You’ve got to have points of strength to make it happen,” Brown says, noting that for Tatnall Square Heights, a local park and a magnet School of Excellence bolstered the community’s potential. “It needs to have boundaries. It needs to be definable so people see it as a neighborhood.”

The plan worked. Today the Heights is host to a range of house sizes, income levels and ethnicities, and crime has been reduced by 58 percent.

Such a large-scale project may take several years to complete, but the reward is worth the wait. “You don’t do a neighborhood in a year,” Brown says. “But the benefits are, our city is not becoming a black hole. We are creating healthy neighborhoods for young families.”

Creating a Community
A neighborhood is more than just a group of houses along a series of streets. It’s a community defined by its personality, and for Columbus’s MidTown district, that personality was moving north.

“The MidTown area is really the center of Columbus,” notes Elizabeth Barker, assistant executive director for Historic Columbus Foundation and MidTown project administrator. “It’s traditionally been where a lot of people live who work in the downtown area. Now we’re seeing a lot of growth moving to the north of Columbus, especially commercial and retail growth. With all the movement north, we’ve been experiencing a lot of vacant property in the [MidTown] area.”

To counteract this trend, Historic Columbus Foundation began revitalizing the district about three years ago by supporting the local designation of five historic districts within the area. With initial guidance from the Trust through its Living Places program, Historic Columbus’s project encompassed a more geographically and ethnically diverse area and included representatives from all MidTown neighborhoods in the steering committee. With ongoing involvement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Historic Columbus is currently implementing a broad-based, inclusive neighborhood revitalization plan.

The Four Points for
Sustainable Neighborhoods

To encourage neighborhood revitalization, the Trust has developed Four Points for Sustainable Neighborhoods:

  • Organization and Communication
  • Security and Safety
    Economic Development and Finance
  • Community Character and Design

More about the Four Points for Sustainable Neighborhoods

But how can such a large collection of people work together to invigorate the community without sacrificing its distinct character? Barker and Savannah’s Jest agree it’s important to keep residents and businesses involved in the process and provide updates, which helps strengthen community feeling and gets people involved.
Because the process has the most impact on those already living and working in the area, Historic Columbus Foundation began by talking to homeowners, landlords, renters and business owners about what they’d like to see happen. This process formed the current 38-member steering committee.

“It starts with the individual,” Jest says. Barker concurs, adding that change begins with “homeowners just talking to each other and starting to be more aware of what is around them, what is happening.”

“It’s really about conversation,” Jest adds, “engaging people to see where they are and what they’re thinking.”

The Columbus steering committee has hired a planning firm, Tunnell-Spangler-Walsh, to survey stakeholders in MidTown to learn residents’ visions for the district and what kinds of structures and streetscapes they consider aesthetically pleasing. The steering committee will incorporate these results into plans for the future.

Even if residents feel their neighborhood is beyond help, Historic Savannah Foundation’s Jest sees otherwise. The neighborhood coordinator encourages people to develop a revitalization plan around the good things about their neighborhood. “That’s where historic preservation can come in and help shed some light, develop some awareness of the value of that existing housing stock, that existing environment and streetscape.”

Often, those involved in revitalizing a community begin to understand the importance of historic preservation and its ties to economic development only after they’ve become involved in the process.

"As individuals go through the visioning and planning process, they start to appreciate the uniqueness and personality of their community," Barker says. "Through that appreciation, they can see how saving existing historic resources and promoting new development really do work together."

Making Life Better
While the economic benefits are many, what neighborhood revitalization really comes down to is improving the quality of life by creating a greater sense of community. Neighborhoods that encourage walking, filled with greenspaces and bike paths, restored historic homes and mixed-use developments, inspire more personal interaction and a greater sense of commitment to and confidence in the neighborhood and city. Quite simply, a successful revitalization makes a town’s neighborhoods better places to live, work, learn and play.

 

 

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