This Thursday, August 24, residents and community leaders of the Cooper-Young neighborhood will convene to cast their votes for or against an application for inclusion in the jurisdiction of the Memphis Landmarks Commission, the purpose of which is to create a new historic overlay district, protecting Cooper-Young with official status as a landmark, historic preservation district.
(March 6 and April 9, 2018 updates: Both the Memphis Landmarks Commission and the Land Use Control Boards approved Cooper-Young’s application. As of this date, the Memphis City Council, upon its third and final reading, voted to put a 30-day hold on a final vote for approval, putting into question the fate of Historic Zoning for Cooper-Young and two other Midtown districts seeking the same status.)
The vote being held by the members of the Cooper Young Community Association Thursday is unofficial. That is, as a technicality it is not a necessary action for the application process to be initiated.
However, the vote is more than just a courtesy; a favorable vote demonstrates to the Memphis and the Landmarks Commission that there exists a well-planned and well-organized desire by the majority of neighborhood property owners to be recognized as a landmarked-protected historic district.
Two other historically-significant Memphis neighborhoods – Vollintine-Evergreen and Speedway – are also in the process of coordinating an application for landmark protections.
But what does it mean to be a landmark district? Why is it so important? And why is it so important now?
-First, historic overlay districts are protected; protected from undesired demolition or out-of-character development.
-Historic overlay districts give the city and the neighborhood jurisdictional power to guide the future development of the neighborhood.
-Contrary to some beliefs, historic preservation is not anti-development. In fact, such districts promote neighborhood stability, which is attractive to right-size development.
-Historic districts promote active community participation, and create bonds between a community, its citizens, and its leadership (Cooper-Young illustrates this concept to perfection).
-Neighborhood architectural guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are tools, used to apply standards to a historic neighborhood for use by residents, developers, and the city.
-Lastly, it is critical that Cooper-Young and other eligible neighborhoods apply for overlay protections now; Memphis and Midtown development will only accelerate over the next few years. In addition, the potential changes prompted by the recommendations of the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan will come to fruition over the next half-dozen years, and historic neighborhoods may need additional tools with which to retain their unique sense of place.
Historic Overlay Districts Are Protected
At its core, having landmark status as a historic overlay district means one thing to a structure or neighborhood: such a status protects the structure or neighborhood from undesired demolition and/or development.
For Cooper-Youngsters, this picture will remind them of properties in their neighborhood: Blythe and Southern. Philadelphia Street. 2295 Oliver. “These are why we need a historic district,” they say.
Historic Preservation means just as the name implies. It is not about limiting development, or construction, or renovation. It is about preserving a neighborhood’s unique character. But in understanding what it means to own property in a historic district, it is easy to get lost in terminology and each term’s significance: Landmark, Historic, Preservation, Overlay, National Register.
First let’s separate the What from the Why. What landmark status does is protect structures. Why it protects is to preserve.
Most will point to Jane Jacobs in the 1960s; the demolition of New York’s iconic Pennsylvania Station and Ms. Jacobs’ fight to stop an expressway from bulldozing through SoHo and Greenwich Village were catalysts for the modern historic preservation movement. But the idea to preserve in the United States really began over a hundred years ago, at the turn of the century, in Charleston, South Carolina.
“For nearly 100 years, generations of Charlestonians have been aware of this city’s singular sense of place.” The National Parks Service page on Charleston’s history of preservation may be all one needs to read to understand why we preserve. “Charleston’s unique environment, people, and circumstances contributed to a tradition of preserving and protecting the physical evidence of past generations. Over the past century, Charlestonians have moved from saving individual buildings to entire neighborhoods to maintain the city’s unique sense of place.”
Key phrases here are important, including “to maintain the city’s unique sense of place,” and “protecting the physical evidence of past generations.”
Charleston began their preservation efforts with private organizations and their acquisitions of key properties starting in 1902. New Orleans followed right on the heels of Charleston’s efforts to preserve, and a national movement was born.
The first local historic district in the country was established in Charleston, SC, in 1931. 1966 marked the year that congress passed the much-fought-after National Historic Preservation Act, which gave local governments the power to create regulatory historic districts. Here in Memphis, “The Memphis Landmarks Commission (MLC) was created by Ordinance No. 2276, passed by the Memphis City Council on July 15, 1975. The MLC is responsible for preserving and protecting the historic, architectural and cultural landmarks in the City of Memphis. As such, the MLC reviews zoning requests and work that is visible from the street, including new construction, demolition, relocation of structures, and different types of exterior alterations in the historic districts.”
Landmarked Historic District versus City Historic Overlay District
The primary difference – and its a significant difference – between a nationally landmarked historic district and a city historic overlay district is one of jurisdiction. (As a reminder, jurisdiction refers to rule of law, granting a legal body the authority to apply local, state and federal laws to a property or district.)
A neighborhood or district may be landmarked as historic under the guidelines of the National Register of Historic Places, which falls under the jurisdiction of the National Park System. Being added to this prestigious national list requires a nomination, a lengthy and thorough documentation process as proof of a structure or district’s historic eligibility – which involves examining its age, integrity, and significance – followed by a stamp of approval by a State Historic Preservation Office.
Being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, means that a property or district is “worthy of preservation.”
Worthy: This obviously does not mean it is automatically protected under any local zoning or development code regulations. Only when neighborhoods or districts apply for local protections as a landmarked historic district do cities and counties have jurisdictional authority over historic zoning. Only then are historic districts afforded the protections against out-of-character development or worse, outright demolition.
A good example locally are our own South Bluffs and South Main districts. Both the South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District and the South Main Street Historic District are listed under the National Register of Historic Places. Only the South Main Street Historic District is recognized as one of the thirteen historic overlay districts under the jurisdiction of the Memphis Landmarks Commission.
This means that if a property within the South Main district – roughly bordered by S. Main St. between Webster and Linden, and Mulberry between Calhoun and Vance avenues – falls prey to either demolition or other development or alterations, any certificates of approval (COAs) or demolition permits must be reviewed, approved or rejected first by the Memphis Landmarks Commission before such applications may move on to the Land Use Control Board and the Memphis City Council. Properties within these districts have these extra layers of protections.
Our South Bluffs Warehouse Historic District is bordered by S. Front St., Wagner Place, Beale Street and Tennessee St. A historic district most Memphians aren’t aware of, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, having been added by a group of local citizens through a lengthy nomination process in 1987. But it is not one of the city’s historic overlay districts; the Memphis Landmark Commission does not have jurisdictional authority over the district.
Therefore, a landmark property such as the historic W.C. Ellis & Sons building complex at 231-245 S. Front St. is not protected from alterations or outright demolition. Properties such as this are vulnerable to developer’s plans and the wrecking ball. Provided a proposed development falls within the regulations of Memphis’ Unified Development Code (UDC) and the local planning overlay – which regulates building heights, street setbacks, property usage, etc. – developers can proceed with demolition with a permit, and construction once their proposal is approved by the Board of Adjustment, or the Land Use Control Board, or by the City Council.
Historic Overlay Districts Are Not Anti-Development
It is worth repeating: At its core, having landmark status as a historic overlay district means one thing to a structure or neighborhood: such a status protects the structure or neighborhood from undesired demolition and/or development. Without jurisdictional historic protections, and provided a proposed development adheres to the local overlay and the UDC, developers may demolish and construct at will.
However many of those unaware of what landmarking and preserving means believe that “preserving” equals “anti-development.” This could not be further from the truth.
A quick glance at any book of historic preservation, a quick web search on the advantages of landmarking districts, a brief discussion with educated developers, study after study on the economic impact of preservation – all reveal these important considerations:
The stability encouraged by historic overlay districts promote right-size development. Neighborhoods with such guidelines have a fair influence on new development within their historic boundaries. Neighborhoods under a historic overlay have demonstrated a long-term commitment to sustainable growth, which attracts and promotes development that fits the neighborhood.
Preservation Pays. Historic preservation creates jobs, having an impact on local labor as well as local manufacturing suppliers. It has been shown to be an effective small-town (i.e. CY) economic development strategy. And it is ideal for attracting and maintaining small, local business.
Tearing down historic houses is bad for public policy. Conversely, historic districts demonstrate a public commitment to a neighborhood and to its unique character. Property values stabilize in historic districts – real estate value is primarily based on investments in the surrounding neighborhood. Due to construction materials used, the life span of historic houses is typically much longer than that of new structures.
Millennials – lower income, right out of college, diverse ethnicities, the creative class – are attracted to the environs that encompass and surround historic neighborhoods. This is critical to the long-term success of neighborhoods in today’s Memphis.
In this sense Cooper-Young is a perfect example of what makes a neighborhood thrive. Walkability. Diversity. Affordability. Hip.
Guidelines Are A Tool – Not The Cause
“Historic guidelines, like what they have in Central Gardens, are only restrictions on what I can and can’t do with my own property!” A valid concern that misses the point entirely. Counter to that, cities already have the right impose regulations on what owners may and may not do through zoning and, in Memphis’ case, the Midtown Overlay and the Unified Development Code.
It’s also important to remember that landmark guidelines are simply tools – tools for city landmark commissions, tools for property owners. They answer a fundamental question: Historically, what is the neighborhood supposed to look like? What architectural style is best represented by the neighborhood? Is it predominantly Victorian, or Craftsman? Is it a street of bungalows or foursquares?
What guidelines are not: They are not the motivation behind the cause to preserve. Guidelines are not an instrument for conformity. They are an instrument for preservation.
One of the main points of confusion for many folks is in distinguishing between historic neighborhood guidelines versus restrictions imposed by neighborhood homeowner’s associations. Under a homeowner’s association, the governing body of the association typically establish specific rules as to how the exteriors of a townhouse or condo in a planned community are maintained, in the interest of continuity. For example, homeowner’s associations can dictate the color paints allowed for a door; historic architectural guidelines do not.
What’s worse – and legally unsustainable, see below – is a historic neighborhood with no design guidelines. How many times have we driven or walked through a quaint neighborhood of historic homes only to come across that one, grossly out of place shoebox and say to ourselves “What were they thinking?” The new tall-skinnies popping up in Cooper-Young are cases in point: architecturally-insignificant, out-of-character structures being squeezed into bungalow-sized lots for maximum profit.
Further, “Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) 13-7-406 requires that the Landmarks Commission adopt a set of Design Review Guidelines prior to the creation of a historic overlay district. TCA 13-7-406 further stipulates that these guidelines be consistent with the regulations and standards adopted by the Secretary of the Interior pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.”
The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties are common sense historic preservation principles in non-technical language. They “promote historic preservation best practices that will help to protect our nation’s irreplaceable cultural resources.”
Guidelines encourage rehabbing and renovating; renovating and rehabbing to historic standards encourages more renovations. Who wants to live next to an eye-sore? Who wants to buy next to an eye-sore? Restoring an old house gives hope to an entire street. In short, what’s good for the home-owner should be good for the neighborhood. None of us live in a housing vacuum, and this is where guidelines help us preserve a neighborhood’s unique sense of place.
Historic neighborhoods promote Community*
Historic neighborhoods promote community participation and forge bonds between community, its citizens, and its leadership.
“Why deal with historic preservation and community economic development? For one, it preserves the unique history, architecture, or character of a community. Being designated historic offers legal protection and review of all proposed work. It can ensure community involvement in the planning of their neighborhood and lend control over unmanaged change… And it is a cost-effective way of providing buildings and housing for a community.”
– Historic Preservation as a Means of Community Economic Development
“A (historically-designated) residential district communicates to citizens that they live in a city that cares about itself and about its residents.”
A New Historic Overlay District – Why Is It Critical Now?
“I just want things to stay the way they are. My neighborhood has done just fine without being a historic district for generations. I don’t see any benefit of adding more regulations onto what I may want for my house, or for that matter what my neighbor wants. The city zoning, the UDC, the Midtown overlay have been and will be enough.”
Not so fast. For generations Memphis has been a city that has grown outward, toward the east. East of East Parkway in the 1950s, then east of Highland in the ‘60s, then east of the new I-240 in the ‘70s, and so on. Through that growth, Midtown was more or less left alone.
That trend has reversed in the last ten to twenty years. Cities have been rediscovering their downtowns since the late 1980s, and revitalization efforts have arrived with this rediscovery. Our Midtown has been, slowly, a part of that revitalization. Since the new millennium, developers looking to take advantage of the positive changes and economic growth in Cooper-Young have taken note.
Also noteworthy will be the possible changes prompted by the recommendations of the Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan. From that plan may come changes to zoning, to the Unified Development Code, and possibly to historic overlay zoning. In theory, these recommendations will be designed to encourage smart development: development for sustainable, multi-use building projects, and neighborhoods with greater transportation choices. Smart development often results in high-density housing and redevelopment in existing communities.
Smart development is a critical need for Memphis’ future and future growth – a need that cannot be overstated. However Memphis cannot afford to see such changes come at the expense of neighborhoods like Cooper-Young. Or Vollintine-Evergreen. Or Speedway. These are the neighborhoods, like Central Gardens, South Main, Orange Mound or Glenview, that make Memphis Memphis. Memphis is not Nashville, nor the next Pittsburgh. Memphis also cannot afford to be the next Vance Avenue, that was bulldozed in the 1960s and ’70s under the broken promises of urban renewal – “future growth” that is now drowning in blight, economic depression, crime and despair.
New development or random demolition, unchecked by any historic guidelines, has the potential of destroying the unique character of a neighborhood. Today this destruction does not arrive in the form of urban renewal; it happens house by house. And that’s all that a status as historic overlay districting will do: allow the City of Memphis and the historic neighborhood to continue to protect the unique character of the neighborhood, house by house.
To each resident, to each city commission, to each city planner, to each city council member, we say this: Move to landmark this district for a historic overlay. Reward the efforts of the majority of the residents and business owners who have worked so hard to make Cooper-Young what it is today, and allow the neighborhood to build on its historically hip foundation, not watch helplessly while it is tall-skinny-ized beyond recognition.
Referenced for this essay –
History in Urban Places. The Historic Districts of the United States: David Hamer (1998)
The Death and Life of Great American Cities: Jane Jacobs, (1961)
Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream: Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Speck, (2000)
Historic Preservation, An Introduction to Its History, Principles, and Practice, Tyler, Ligibel, Tyler, 2nd Ed., (2009)
*The Economics of Historic Preservation, a Community Leader’s Guide, Donovan D. Rypkema, (2014)
The National Park Service, Dept of the Interior
The NPS page for the National Register of Historic Places
The NPS page for Charleston’s Historic, Religious & Community Buildings
The Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans
The Memphis Landmarks Commission of Shelby County, TN
Preservation Makes Dollars and Sense: The Economic Impact of Historic Preservation in Memphis, Tennessee, study by the Memphis Landmarks Commission, 2003