The Memphis City Council decided again Tuesday to hold a vote that would reshape the guidelines governing the city’s historic overlay districts and give residents in the recently approved Speedway Terrace and Cooper-Young historic districts a chance to protest, and ultimately undo the areas’ designation.
The full council is now set to vote on the third and final reading of an ordinance in three weeks.
The council has never adopted any standards or procedures for approving historic districts; instead that has been the responsibility of the Landmarks Commission. Now the body is seeking to create a more formal process with specific criteria to designate historic zones.
The ordinance would give the council the “absolute discretion and authority” to approve or deny applications for historic districts, while also being able to regulate construction, repairs, alterations, rehabilitation, relocation, and demolition within an historic overlay district.
The ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Kemp Conrad, reads in part: “The Council seeks to develop a balanced historic district program that preserves truly historic structures and areas while allowing smart and harmonious new redevelopment of aging and declining neighborhoods.”
Currently, there are 13 approved historic overlay districts in the city containing more than 6,000 parcels.
The council defines an historic district as an area with a “significant individual structure or a concentration, linkage or continuity of sites, buildings, structures or objects which are united by past events or aesthetically by common and compatible plan or physical development, and which meets two or more of the following criteria":
It’s associated with an event that made a significant contribution to history
It includes structures associated with the lives of significant historical figures
It contains a cohesive concentration of structures or groups of structures which embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values;
It has or could yield archaeological information important in history or prehistory
It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places
If at least 50 percent of the residents in the district send in written letters of opposition to the designation, the application will be voided.
Within in established historic districts, permit applications for new construction, relocation, repairs, and demolition will be heard by the Historic Commission or the Office of Planning and Development.
A main concern of residents who support historic designation is unnecessary demolition of properties in the district. Per the new ordinance, applications for demolition would be heard by the Historic Commission.
Demolition would be permitted if the property has been blighted or unsafe for a year, the cost of rehabilitation will exceed the property’s fair market value by 50 percent, or a replacement structure meeting the district’s guidelines will take its place.
Under the new ordinance, the council would conduct periodic reviews of the city’s existing historic districts to ensure that development in these designated areas is not “unduly restricted.” At any time, the council will also have the power to take away a district’s designation.
In order for the ordinance to become law, it must receive a majority of votes from the full city council in three weeks. Once effective, residents of the Speedway Terrace and Cooper-Young districts will have 14 days to send the council written opposition.
If more than 50 percent of the property owners oppose the historic overlay creation, then the designation will be removed.