Two years ago when she started the nomination process to list Fifeville as a National Register Historic District (NRHD), city Preservation and Design Planner Mary Joy Scala didn’t think it would turn into a controversial decision. After all, such a designation is largely symbolic: It imposes no design controls on homeowners if they don’t opt to receive tax credits. But the strong opposition from neighborhood residents is a part of a larger issue that continues to simmer below the city’s surface.
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With Fifeville’s location—it’s a 10-minute walk away from UVA and the Downtown Mall—residents are concerned that any kind of government designation could change the face of the neighborhood and open the door wider for gentrification. Last March, C-VILLE reported on tenants being pushed out of the neighborhood, possibly due to talk of a looming historic designation. From March 2006 to October 2007, the city has issued 14 demolition permits in Fifeville, which Scala says is many more than other neighborhoods.
While a NRHD designation doesn’t necessarily give state government any approval power over demolitions, new construction or renovations, local designations would. If the city were to make Fifeville an Architectural Design Control (ADC) district, then homeowners would have to have any renovations (and demolitions and new construction) approved by the Board of Architectural Review (BAR), a body that’s a stickler for design.
At the December 3 City Council meeting, Scala told councilors that some of the residents’ objections may have come from confusing the two types of districts: the relatively laissez faire NRHD and the more restrictive ADC. But some residents, says Scala, felt that the national designation would not only begin to price some people out of their homes, but eventually lead to local controls.
"In a sense, that’s true," says Scala. "But I felt like I was always up front about that. In our comprehensive plan, it says both districts serve a valuable community purpose. But it’s a process, and they would have plenty of opportunity to say they didn’t want a local district."
City Council approved Fifeville’s nomination for NRHD designation at its last meeting, a step that Scala says is unusual since local government normally has little to do with such a process. Council did amend its approval, decoupling the NRHD designation with any action that could lead to design control, a separation that existed to begin with. Two residents still spoke out against approval.
Fifeville may soon receive a national historic designation. "Any neighborhood near Downtown is undergoing gentrification," says Mary Joy Scala, preservation planner for the city. "It just happens. It has nothing to do with historic districts."
Worries about a NRHD designation ramping up gentrification aren’t unfounded. Under the designation, homeowners can receive tax credit for rehabbing houses—up to 25 percent of cost.
"One thing about the National Register, because it allows those tax credits, they’re worried about people coming in and buying a house, fixing it up, getting tax credits and flipping it," says Scala. "And I can see that happening. There were a couple of people lined up who wanted to do that."
Scala calls Fifeville a "threatened neighborhood." Its location is enough to make any developer drool, and at least two high-density projects are going up that involve tearing down older houses. Scala says she sees local design controls as a tool to slow down—if not stop—gentrification from completely changing the economic and physical landscape of the neighborhood.
"I personally think that if you have a local district in place, it slows down the flipping things," she says. "Fifeville isn’t in the National Register and it won’t be for another six months at least. But this has already been going on because of its location. Any neighborhood near Downtown is undergoing gentrification. It just happens. It has nothing to do with historic districts."
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