A major challenge in renovating old downtown buildings is complying with strict fire and safety codes, and with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Making structural changes to satisfy regulations can be very expensive, but federal tax breaks can help take the sting out of it. All of downtown is a designated national historic district, and buildings more than 50 years old can qualify for substantial tax credits. There are plenty of takers. “If it’s vacant, somebody is plotting something,” says Asheville Building Safety Director Terry Summey.
One catch, however, is that the cost of the renovation must be more than the value of the building. The tax credits average around 40 cents for every dollar spent, and the eventual owner of the condominium and/or building can get in on the action, as well as the developers. The Grove Arcade renovation, set to begin serious construction this spring, will feature the biggest historic-preservation tax credits ever given in North Carolina — a dollar for every 94 cents invested.
“They actually are not that hard to use,” observes Pat Whalen, president of Public Interest Projects, adding, “It’s almost a shame not to use them.” PIP has used such tax credits to renovate many downtown buildings — most recently, the Smith-Carrier Building on Haywood Street.
That may be true — if you know what you’re doing, warns local architect Patti Glazer, whose firm has worked on some 15 downtown projects. To those in the business, Glazer is affectionately known as the Code Queen, or Code Book Patti, partly because she once argued — successfully — to get a state code changed. She says you can’t just wrap a building in vinyl siding, put in bay windows, and expect to get the tax credits.
Many downtown structures are two or three stories tall, and the bulk of those fall in what’s called Asheville’s Fire District — meaning they were built with a lot of wood in their interiors and, consequently, must meet tougher fire restrictions. Generally, the people who buy such buildings aren’t big-time developers, but rather, out-of-towners who arrive with some money in their pockets. Most want mixed occupancy — with retail on the bottom floor, and office and living spaces up above — and that’s where the challenge lies, says Glazer.
“Some folks think they can just paint it and move right in,” she reveals. “But then they’re quite surprised when they find out later they need to install a $50,000 sprinkler system.”
When you have a mercantile area, such as a restaurant, so close to residential spaces, the fire codes become even stricter and can require at least two building exits. But a lot of these old structures don’t have two exits, and adding a second one can be expensive. There are ways around it, though, notes Glazer.
One way is to place the living spaces closer to the single exit, and make the stairwells more fire resistant. Glazer’s design for the Costanza Building on Haywood Street — which includes six top-floor apartments — uses this strategy.
Sometimes, the solution may involve multiple uses. A staircase soon to be added to the back of the Flat Iron Building on Wall Street, for instance, will also function as an observation tower: “So they can watch the sunsets, I guess,” says Summey.