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Expanded Historic District Proposed for Parts of Manchester, Blackwell & Swansboro

We have been driving around Manchester for almost a decade studying this great neighborhood, and have been confused by the seemingly sporadic renovation we have seen in certain areas, but not others. What we learned through our research is that development has occurred almost exclusively in areas that are federal historic districts and therefore qualify for historic tax credits for renovation. The areas that are not federally recognized as historic districts have seen essentially no investment or renovation work.

The map above shows the existing historic districts for Manchester shaded in pink/orange. The Manchester Industrial historic district and the Manchester Residential and Commercial historic district have acted as a catalyst for investment and preservation. As a result, owners have invested in old industrial buildings by converting them into renovated apartments, mixed use buildings along Hull Street are being put back in service, and old homes west of Hull Street have been restored. The presence of a federal historic district enables these qualifying properties within its boundaries to be eligible for tax credits to help defray the enormous cost of renovating these old buildings. Without tax credits, most of these beautiful old buildings and homes would simply have been demolished, or left to rot.

Unlike the aforementioned areas, the residential homes east of Hull in the area referred to as Blackwell, and the industrial properties southwest of Cowardin Ave in the area referred to as Swansboro, have seen no work. This is in part because these areas are not federally recognized historic districts, and do not qualify for tax credits as a result.

How do we spur renovation outside the existing historic districts so we don’t lose all our old buildings?

After seeing countless buildings in Manchester, Blackwell and Swansboro left to rot and eventually being torn down, we wanted to stop that devastating trend. Our old buildings have been gradually disappearing right in front of our eyes and slowly erasing the area’s history. As an investment in the area’s future and a sign of good faith for the neighborhood we love, we have decided to sponsor the work that is necessary to apply to expand the existing Manchester Residential and Commercial Historic District. If successful, structures in this newly expanded area could qualify for tax credits if deemed to be contributing. These credits could be used by building owners to help offset the cost of renovation for the newly covered properties should the owner choose to participate in the programs (participation is optional).

The hope is that by paying for the extensive surveying and application work to be done, and if ultimately approved by Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources and the National Park Service, this expanded historic district will benefit from new investment, renovation, and pride of ownership. This has been a significant undertaking as it has taken approximately a year so far to study the area, catalogue all the properties, and fill out the necessary application paperwork. And we still have more work to do. If approved, the expanded district would more than double in size, and would go into effect in August of 2018.

Stay tuned to the Dogtown Dish, as there will be public meetings to review the expanded district where you can hear about the process, provide comments, and gather information. We will keep you apprised as those details become available here on this site.

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34 thoughts on “Expanded Historic District Proposed for Parts of Manchester, Blackwell & Swansboro

  1. I was wondering if you might be able to briefly elaborate how this is worthwhile endeavor given your relatively recent blog post that the Trump tax plan was making federal tax credits for Historic Districts dramatically less viable for developers.

    1. Great question. Without going into all the excruciating details, if approved, many buildings will qualify under the old rules via grandfathering. For those buildings that don’t qualify for grandfathering, the buildings in the proposed district would still qualify for the same state credits (25% of qualified expenses), and federal credits at 20% of qualified expenses, but spread over 5 years (rather than up front as historically been the case under the old rules). While the federal credits are certainly diminished in value under the new tax rules since they will be spread out over time, the area needs every little bit it can get to help. Said differently, something is better than nothing.

  2. I was amazed to learn how little of the city’s historic buildings were actually protected from demolition. Expansion of the old and historic areas would be a step in the right direction. Another might be a change in city ordinance prohibiting demolition of any building on a state or national historic register without further approval.

    1. Agreed. But to be clear, this initiative is not for a city old and historic district. This initiative is to get the area listed on the federal register of historic places, so that renovations of buildings that qualify, are eligible for historic tax credits similar to other areas of the city (the Fan, Church Hill, Jackson Ward, etc). This federal historical listing is what makes the renovation of these old buildings possible from a financial standpoint.

      1. Paul Hammond, I don’t really understand this comment. Qualifying for the federal historic district doesn’t restrict property owners’ rights (although it’s possible some time in the future city council could pass some type of zoning overlay for all historic districts that _would_ restrict owners’ actions, and I don’t think that would be actionable in court).

        Are you referencing the restrictions that come with city old and historic district status? Because that’s not what’s on the table for Blackwell/etc.

        (And yes, when neighbors started having random guys taking pictures of their houses and folks figured out it was for a federal historic district application, I had a moment of worry and went to look up what it would mean. It appears there are few downsides for folks in the neighborhood, unless you think it is likely to lead to more renovations and therefore to rising property values and rents, which I suspect existing neighborhood residents would have a range of opinions on.)

  3. Way to go team Hild. Michael Hild and Laura Dyer Hild…preserving the past for a greater future. Manchester is lucky to have your visionary skills and talents. 🇺🇸👍🏻🇺🇸

    1. The first step is to create the federal historic district so that a building owner is given a viable financial alternative to demolishing an old building that is cost prohibitive to renovate. If the surrounding neighborhoods wish to pursue city historic districts as a next step, that is a future possibility but not part of this initiative. It’s hard to make an argument for a city historic district, without the same area first being on the federal historic list. That would essentially force every building owner to renovate a property that is not financially viable despite the lack of historic tax credits. Said differently, a federal historic district should come first, and a city historic district is an optional next step

    2. No such imminent threat here. The real threat is massive urban decay and blight because it is uneconomic to renovate old buildings, especially in such a challenged area. Once that is addressed, perhaps a city old and historic district is tenable, but that comes with tradeoffs that some residents/owners may not support. Time will tell.

    3. We asked for that general area, including the warehouses, to be included, but it was deemed to be “non-contributing.” Not enough historic/qualifying fabric to constitute being part of a historic district. Just repeating what we were told by the experts.

  4. I support this but at the same time I wonder: if the owners of these blighted properties could have done anything at all that they wanted to in absence historic district purview, then what is the motivation now? I understand it will stop them from being torn down but is it really an agent of change?

    1. A federal historic district doesn’t directly prevent a building from being torn down per se. It provides an incentive to help renovate/maintain a historic building, so an owner has an alternative to simply letting an old building rot/be torn down. The majority of the old buildings you see renovated in the Richmond area have participated in this historic program. So yes it is a massive agent of change.

    2. Katherine, understood, and no doubt that derelict building owners are a huge problem. We agree. But it would be even worse without the historic designation and resulting tax credits. Many of the renovations that have taken place in Chimborazo participated in this exact program (state and/or federal).

    3. I guess the last thing I’ll say about it is, I have actually had the owner of my building use CAR review as an excuse to not make improvements and repairs when the simple fact is it comes down to the money. The historic status and tax credit is an incentive, but not for everyone. I’m sure you know best of all how much capital it takes to bring these projects to fruition…. sometimes easier said than done.

    4. This inititive is NOT for a city old and historic district so CAR has no bearing. This initiative is for a federal historic district listing. They are two completely different things.

    5. The only way to preserve and restore “Manchester” is to make sure that their would be a popular walking tour 500 years from now. People love the old way. Preserve it, if you can.

  5. It is sadly ignorant to suggest nothing has happened east of Hull Street when more than $20 million in housing improvements since 1998. Could more have been done had the area been overlaid with a historic district? Possibly. But to say nothing has happened is complete fiction. Also, the city’s real tax abatement program coupled with state tax credits and insightful tax credits has fueled substantial renovation between Cowardun and Commerce after 20 years of city efforts to stoke interest. While a federal historic district is nice, each building 50 years or older can already be qualified, something owners and developers are keenly aware of. Lets not gild the lily un making the case for a district.

    1. If you are referring to the newly constructed RRHA sponsored housing in Blackwell funded entirely by HUD grants and city money, yes that is absolutely true. But that isn’t private investment. While that newly constructed housing is still commendable, that is entirely public controlled/funded housing born exclusively at the cost of the tax payer. There has been very little private investment in the residential district East of Hull Street in Blackwell.

      1. Saying the new construction is Blackwell is entirely publicly funded, in implicit contrast to the new construction and rehab work in Dogtown, is too simplistic of a dichotomy.

        Obviously, much of the work on both sides of Hull Street has been new construction on vacant lots where prior generations of housing had been torn down by private (west/north of Hull) or public (east/south of Hull) actors then left vacant for extended periods of time.

        A significant portion of the new construction east/south of Hull used a mix of public and private funding, with the various HOPE VI subsidies paying enough of the land/construction costs to bring the purchase prices into the range that the market would support (with some homebuyers also getting downpayment assistance). And a lot of the new apartments are public-private partnerships using LIHTC funding and (I think) site-based section 8 vouchers, but that doesn’t erase that private capital went into their building.

        West of Hull (dogtown), several of the new apartment buildings that have been built have used LIHTC funding, which is a form of public funding (to be fair, many of the other new apartments do appear to be fully privately funded if you don’t count the local property tax breaks).

        In terms of existing buildings, renovations done with historic rehab tax credits also represent a mix of public and private funding, since getting reimbursed for 45 percent of the rehab costs is a form of public funding, even if it’s after the fact.

        On the main topic, I’m not opposed to the extension of the historic district–if the state and federal governments are going to provide tax credits for historic rehabs, owners of contributing properties in Blackwell and Swansboro might as well benefit from the credits. I doubt there would be neighborhood support in Blackwell for CAR designation, but of course that’s not what’s on the table.

  6. Is it at all feasible to accomplish this with creating separate Blackwell and Swansboro Historic Districts instead of rolling them into and expansion of Manchester? I hear worries from neighbors about losing their neighborhood identity.

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