Celebrating our heritage

You’ve seen it happen: One homeowner fixes up his old house, then his neighbor does likewise, and before you know it, the whole neighborhood is reborn.

That’s the simple process behind historic preservation, says Maggie O’Connor, director of the city’s Historic Resources Department and staff liaison to the Historic Resources Commission, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “It’s the ripple effect … and it just takes one person to get it started,” she observes.

During those two decades, the HRC has overseen the rebirth of Asheville’s first subdivision, Montford, as well as Biltmore Village and Albemarle Park, O’Connor explains. The HRC is charged with making sure that property owners’ proposed renovations and other external improvements adhere to guidelines that keep the neighborhoods looking the way they were meant to — Victorian-era designs for Montford, Arts-and-Crafts cottages in Albemarle, and pebbledash, English-style shops in Biltmore Village.

The commission has sometimes made controversial decisions, irking property owners, O’Connor concedes. “But the community has a vested interest in preserving its assets, and historical structures are an asset,” she asserts.

Harry Weiss, for one, couldn’t agree more. Weiss is director of the Preservation Society of Asheville-Buncombe, created in 1976. Preservation, he argues, makes economic sense: Renovated homes and revitalized neighborhoods increase property-tax revenues; and restored, maintained historic sites draw what he calls “heritage tourism,” a buzzword in the industry, these days. Travelers who visit historic sites such as Biltmore Estate “spend more money [in the area] than other tourists,” he reports. Weiss also points out that historic renovation creates jobs for the local economy, because such projects tend to be more labor-intensive than new construction.

“There are plenty of other reasons for historic preservation — maintaining a sense of community, honoring the past, and reviving public spaces — but the economics make sense, too,” says Weiss. He cites a recently created state tax credit for homeowners renovating historic properties they plan to occupy themselves: Up to 30 percent of the renovation costs may qualify for a tax credit. Owners of income-producing properties — such as the rental apartments and shops created by the 1998 renovation of the former Asheville Hotel downtown — already get 20-percent tax credits from both the state and the feds, adds Weiss.

“The backbone of preservation in Asheville has been people buying old homes and fixing them up. Until this program came along, there wasn’t any aid for them,” he notes.

That’s one of the things that O’Connor says impressed her about Asheville when she took the job with HRC, about seven years ago: “People would fix [up] a house and live in it. They weren’t looking for a quick profit.” She sees the results of that spirit in Asheville’s revitalized downtown, a historic district reborn in much the same way as some of the city’s older neighborhoods.

But there’s a catch to preservation: Reviving a neighborhood or business district often pushes out current tenants and property owners, by increasing rents and property values beyond their reach. “The easiest criticism people level against preservation is gentrification,” Weiss admits. To solve that problem, he says, the community must address affordable-housing needs concurrently with preservation-and-revitalization efforts.

In Asheville, that’s being done through several nonprofit organizations (Neighborhood Housing Services, Mountain Housing Opportunities and others), federal Community Development Block Grant awards administered by the city, and other programs, Weiss explains. “You have to have a balance, and address both needs.”

Another often-overlooked benefit of historic preservation, says Weiss, is strictly economic: “People see HRC as a regulatory body only. But the fact is, by having a commission and a set of rules, it gives you a protected environment for your investment. If you buy a historic property and invest in improvements, you know your neighbor next door can’t go in and trash his property.”

The HRC’s 20th anniversary is just part of the celebrations planned during this year’s edition of Heritage Week (May 2-9). Among the week’s events will be two Landmarks of Asheville Tours (May 8 and 9, 1-5 p.m., including such sites as architect Douglas Ellington’s house, the Albemarle Inn, Zealandia, the YMI and the Stephens-Lee Community Center; the cost is $15, including a reception from 5-8 p.m. on May 8). There will also be a lecture on African-American burial rituals May 6, 7 p.m. at the St. John-A-Baptist Church in Kenilworth, preceded by a tour of the historic South Asheville Cemetery at 6 p.m.) and the presentation of the annual Griffin Awards and Sondley Award. This year’s Sondley Award winner is North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robert F. Orr, who was the Preservation Society’s first president and the HRC’s first chairman. Orr was instrumental in saving the former Ravenscroft School building downtown; he also helped arrange the donation of the Gudger House on Montford Avenue (which sparked the creation of the Preservation Society’s revolving fund), and rehabilitated two homes on Montford Avenue.

For more information about Heritage Week events, call the Preservation Society at 254-2343.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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