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DILWORTH: A HISTORIC NEIGHBORHOOD AT RISK

AS TRANSIT PROJECTS BLOSSOM, CITY'S USE OF N.C. LAW MAKES MORE DEMOLITIONS LIKELY

To a casual passerby the two small Dilworth houses aren't remarkable, although one does offer an inviting wraparound porch. Both have the vaguely ramshackle look that denotes rental housing.

But Friday, with their purchase by the nonprofit Preservation North Carolina, the houses gained larger significance.

Although they were saved from likely demolition, other houses in Dilworth's historic district aren't likely to be as lucky.

Dilworth residents, as well as a statewide historic preservation expert, want to know why Charlotte, unlike other N.C. cities with historic district ordinances, interprets its ordinance in a way that works against retaining Dilworth's historic pattern. The interpretation puts the mill houses and modest bungalows of Charlotte's first streetcar suburb at much greater risk of being obliterated.

The two modest houses, 329 E. Worthington Ave. and 1818 Euclid Ave., were up for sale by an investor. Zoned for 22 units an acre, the property could have been packaged, the houses demolished and apartments or condos built.

Both date to the early 20th century and, as PNC President Myrick Howard put it, help tell the story of Dilworth, a neighborhood designed with homes for the wealthy, the middle class and workers. "If all the worker parts are lost," he said, "the story's lost."

House and land prices in Dilworth have risen dramatically the past decade. So has the size of houses. Many smaller Dilworth houses have already been expanded so drastically there's no longer much "historic" about them other than what faces the street. Howard said other cities, such as Raleigh, don't allow additions that big in historic districts.

But something even more destructive now threatens Dilworth: the transit-friendly condo projects rising near South Boulevard.

The city, as it should, is promoting transit-focused growth near its light rail system. It created a special TOD (i.e. "transit-oriented development") zoning which allows high-density, highrise mixed-use projects.

Here's the problem: The city hasn't adequately protected one of its most lovely, economically vibrant historic neighborhoods, which happens to abut the transit corridor.

Several Dilworth residents - including Tamara Titus, who got PNC involved, and architectural historian Frances Alexander - are deeply worried.

Here's the crux of the issue: If you own historic district property zoned, let's say, for 22 condos per acre, city attorneys say the Historic District Commission can't stop you from building a large condo project, and making a lot more money in the process - even in an area of one-story mill houses. Baloney, said Howard of PNC, using nicer words.

City attorneys say if property in a historic district is zoned for high-intensity development, that zoning trumps the historic district. But Howard, active in N.C. preservation for decades, helped write the state law setting up N.C. cities' historic district ordinances. Charlotte's interpretation, he said, is flat wrong.

The state law specifically says historic district requirements trump other zoning laws, except for the property's "use," he said. That means, for example, an office must be allowed on property in a historic district zoned "office," but you can require the building to fit in with the size and scale of its surroundings.

In his view, Charlotte's Historic District Commission could just say no to large, mixed-used condo developments, since they violate Dilworth's historic, small-scale pattern.

Howard said most historic district commissions in the state regulate size and have for decades.

But the city's historic district administrator, John Rogers, said city attorneys have said for years that a building's size "in and of itself can't be a consideration."

I asked why Charlotte's interpretation differs from other cities. Rogers referred me to the city attorney's office.

Assistant city attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan said if a property's zoning, such as TOD, permits a certain height, the HDC can't deny a building there based on height alone. Howard disagreed.

PNC will add protective convenants to the houses it bought, then sell them.

But it can't buy all of Dilworth.

If other N.C. cities can interpret state law to better protect historic neighborhoods, why is Charlotte stubbornly doing something else?

Dilworth is a local and national treasure. Instead of trying to protect an obscure legal opinion from years ago, Charlotte's leaders should push to protect Dilworth from the predictable effects of high-density growth nearby. It's a shame they don't seem to be.

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Mary Newsom is an Observer associate editor. Write her at The Observer, P.O. Box 30308, Charlotte, NC 28230-0308, or mnewsom@charlotteobserver.com. Visit her blog at marynewsom.blogspot.com.

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