WTOC Investigates: Gaps in legal protections for historic buildings

Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 4:15 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - Another historic building in Savannah will soon be torn down. This time in the Historic District.

While a judge’s order determined the boarded up wood-framed cottage at 9 Lincoln Street is an immediate public danger, Savannah preservationists question the process followed.

A WTOC Investigation has found even when a historic building is inside Savannah’s Historic Landmark District, there are gaps in protection if the case goes to court.

A new city policy signed in January aimed to close the loop, but it doesn’t go far enough to address what happened to 9 Lincoln Street and prevent it from happening to another Historic District property.

“That is something that we could not have avoided,” said Melanie Wilson, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Commission. “It just happened and one of the things we’ve done here at MPC is working the judges to help them understand historic preservation and any of the issues that come before them.”

The Metropolitan Planning Commission is leading discussions with several groups about what can be done differently.

“There’s needs to be some serious review of how long a building can be boarded up, even if it’s a question of how long a building can be boarded up in the Historic Landmark District,” Wilson said. “You know if something is boarded up for 5 to 10 years, even if it’s the ordinance, you are supporting demolition by neglect, there’s no way.”

Tearing down historic structures in Savannah for large-scale development is part of a decades long pattern documented by the National Parks Service. It’s also one of the reasons why in 2018 the National Parks Service downgraded Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District status to “threatened.”

In an email response to WTOC, the National Parks Service said while Savannah is not in jeopardy losing its national landmark designation, the status remains unchanged.

But it’s something the city is actively trying to change, several city officials said, pointing to a number a new plans and policies, including the one City Manager Jay Melder signed on Jan. 14.

Community backlash to the demolition of the Bethel AME Church on East Broad Street is what prompted Melder to pen the new policy and procedures for demolishing properties citywide. In December, a contractor demolished the church, which had historic ties to the Civil Rights movement.

Preservationists and planners also weren’t included in the demolition decision. The policy now offers protections for historic buildings, like Bethel AME, which are outside of the historic district and are more than 50 years old.

Under the policy, city staff are now required to notify preservationists and city planners once a historic building lands in court for demolition.

As WTOC Investigates learned, the policy will not change what happened with the 9 Lincoln Street case.

“The pathway that we talked about and we put forth is a pathway that wouldn’t have caught this because it was just a general code compliance issue,” said Bridget Lidy, director of the City of Savannah’s Urban Planning and Design.

“It’s hard when cases go to court because the judge is the ultimate decider on it,” she added.

The 9 Lincoln Street case ended up in Chatham County Recorder’s Court last June, months after a city code compliance cited Bryan Hotel Investors for housing violations.

The hotel group pursued demolition pointing to a private engineering assessment paid for by the hotel group. It determined the building was not structurally sound.

It’s the only evidence the judge listed when he issued a court order for demolition in October.

“So, that was distressing to us because we knew it was going to be an uphill battle,” said Ryan Arvay, with the Historic Savannah Foundation.

He publicly spoke against the process followed at a Feb. 9 meeting by the MPC’s Historic District Board of Review. The board approved a demolition plan for the building.

In a recording of the meeting, board members spoke against the building’s demolition and said they did not want to approve the plan.

“Is that what’s really happening - are we being told how to vote?” asked board member Stephen Bodek. An MPC staff member responded to say because of the court order, “our hands are essentially tied.”

One positive outcome in the case, Wilson said, is Mark Dana with Bryan Hotel Investors agreed to two things with the demolition: To document the historical elements that remain and deconstruct the building to salvage any historic materials.

Below is a statement from the City of Savannah:

The City of Savannah has been committed to working diligently with local stakeholders representing preservationists, residents and the business community to protect our National Historic Landmark District with the goal of striking a balance between preservation, growth, tourism and quality of life. Since the NPS issued their report of our “threatened” status, we have done the following:

The city will continue work on the recommendations put forth in the NPS report and improve our status.

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