The future of Augusta's Bethlehem Historic District is at stake tonight as area preservationists and growth advocates debate changing guidelines concerning demolition and renovation work in the neighborhood.
The public hearing initiated by the Augusta Commission will take place during a meeting of the Augusta-Richmond County Historic Preservation Commission, preservation commission Chairman George D. Bush said.
It's been a growing controversy over the past several years.
Augusta officials are split over the issue of demolishing certain structures in Bethlehem and preserving the area for its historical significance.
Bethlehem was once a modest neighborhood inhabited primarily by blacks during the Jim Crow era.
In 1933, it became Augusta's first locally designated historic district, said Erick Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta Inc. In 1997, the district was placed on the National Register of Historical Places, he said.
Growth advocates say, however, that Bethlehem's historical district designations are roadblocks in removing blight.
"There is sentiment among city officials, primarily, to rescind the Bethlehem District designation under the local ordinance," Mr. Montgomery said.
"They see it as a hindrance, a nuisance to their plans because they have to go through the preservation commission to tear buildings down."
Although rescinding Bethle-hem's historical designation is not the issue at hand, Mr. Bush said demolishing structures in Bethlehem without having to go through the Historic Preservation Commission is a possible goal of some city officials.
The history of the Bethlehem District, a 480-acre area bordered by Wrightsboro Road, Railroad Avenue, Old Savannah Road and McCauley, Poplar and Clay streets, is tied to much of the history of Augusta's black community, Mr. Montgomery said.
Lifelong Bethlehem resident Addie Powell agreed.
"You wouldn't find this anywhere else, so that's why it's on the register," she said. "It has a significance."
But some of Bethlehem's small one- and two-bedroom, shotgun-style homes have deteriorated into hangouts for drug dealers and other shady activities.
This is one reason why Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams supports new development there.
"If they keep what they got there, they would never be able to change or bring it up," he said. "All they're doing is making an eyesore."
Mr. Williams favors developing "a new neighborhood that people would be proud to live in," including mixed residential homes, he said.
Relaxing the commission's guidelines to make renovation in Bethlehem easier would be a step forward for the district, Mr. Bush said.
Completely rescinding the guidelines would leave important historic properties subject to "demolition without review," Mr. Bush said.
The Historic Preservation Commission will make a recommendation based on the public hearing to the city commission.
Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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