Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Preservation Through Mediation: The Atlanta Process 

12-09-2015 17:35

Through its Critical Issues Fund, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has encouraged preservation advocates to become involved in local comprehensive planning and zoning activities. Why? If local plans and zoning ordinances do not reflect preservation values, preservationists will find their community`s development rules stacked against them and the prospects for eleventh hour crises will increase.

Local plans often set the stage for new highway projects that spell disaster for historic districts. Zoning policies frequently create financial incentives for property owners to demolish small historic landmarks and replace them with new high-rises. It is critical that the preservation community play a part in shaping these rules.

The National Trust awarded a $33,450 Critical Issues Fund grant to the city of Atlanta in September 1986 that enabled preservation advocates to play a major role in rewriting that city`s comprehensive plan. The project grew out of a bitter conflict that erupted in the Spring of 1986 over the demolition of three important local historic landmarks.

Efforts to resolve the conflict led to the creation of a seventeen-member Policy Steering Committee, a forum in which city council members, developers, preservation advocates and others worked to resolve their differences.

Key to the project`s success was the personal involvement of Mayor Andrew Young, who attended the Steering Committee meetings, and that of other local leaders, such as Eileen Segrest, president of the Atlanta Preservation Center, Tim Crimmins, director of the Historic Preservation Program at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and Jim Rollins, a local attorney.

A team of professional mediators from the Southeast Negotiation Network of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Institute for Environmental Negotiation of the University of Virginia mediated the Steering Committee meetings; leading preservation law and finance experts educated the committee in different areas. Through a series of meetings that took place over a ten-month period, the committee eventually pounded out an agreement that the participants felt they could live with.

The city council approved the committee`s agreed upon preservation plan as official interim policy on August 1, 1988. The plan represents a major step forward for Atlanta and significantly strengthens the city`s system for protecting historic landmarks. When the project began, only three historic buildings enjoyed any meaningful protection. Forty-six landmarks will now receive strong protection, with more properties expected to be added to the list. An additional 107 buildings classified as "historic sites" will be protected against "speculative demolition." Property owners will not be allowed to demolish these properties without first obtaining new "foundation permits." This provision guards against the vacant lots that result when buildings are torn down but new development plans fall through. These and a host of other provisions were adopted as the city`s official interim policy pending the actual drafting of a new ordinance.

One of the most remarkable outcomes of the Atlanta project was the enactment of interim development controls intended to protect buildings nominated for, but not yet officially designated, landmark or historic site status. Preservationists in many communities know all too well what happens when buildings are nominated for protected status. There is often a rush to demolish them before the local city council can officially designate them as landmarks.

To prevent this from happening in Atlanta, Mayor Andrew Young signed an executive order banning demolitions before the City Council could officially act on the Steering Committee`s recommendations. This 45-day executive order was followed by the Council`s enactment of an eleven-month interim development ordinance that extended the demolition ban. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Atlanta plan calls for this preservation program to be integrated into other city policies. City zoning decisions will be examined for their impact on historic buildings, and ostensibly "non-preservation" policies-housing, transportation, economic development-will be related to and coordinated with the city`s new preservation objective.

Besides strengthening local protection for Atlanta`s landmarks, the Atlanta project generated several issue papers that may help preservationists in other cities as they grapple with similar problems.

The papers deal with such topics as creating and using a revolving fund for preservation, growth management and historic preservation, and economic incentives for preservation. The papers will be made available later this year by the National Trust`s Center for Preservation Policy Studies. In the following article, Preservation Forum publishes portions of the issue paper, "The Effectiveness and Fiscal Impact of Tax Incentives for Historic Preservation." Written by John E. Petersen and Susan G. Robinson of the Government Finance Research Center, the paper discusses the fiscal impact questions that face any local government considering tax incentives for preservation.

Publication Date: Winter 1988-1989



Author(s):Constance Beaumont