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A Virginia-Highland preschool plan becomes a proxy for BeltLine and preservation debates

A map showing Intown Jewish Preschool's proposed new building on the site of four existing houses on Cooledge Avenue and Monroe Drive in Virginia-Highland, as seen in a March letter from the project architect. Two of the houses are listed as contributing to a local historic district on the National Register of Historic Places.

By John Ruch

A Virginia-Highland preschool’s expansion plan has sparked one of those neighborhood battles that is about way more than just that site. It’s about the future of Atlanta’s historic, single-family neighborhoods in a time of unprecedented development pressures and outdated regulatory tools.

The plan by Intown Jewish Preschool (IJP) involves tearing down four old houses on Cooledge Avenue and Monroe Drive, two of them listed as contributing to the Virginia-Highland Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet it has divided even preservation-loving locals in the Virginia-Highland Civic Association (VHCA), with some calling it “commercial creep” into the neighborhood and others seeing it as a bulwark against far larger mega-projects that could be spawned by the nearby Atlanta BeltLine.

While the neighborhood recently completed a recertification of its National Register listing, it also in recent years rejected the concept of a City landmark district along that Monroe corridor, a designation that would have meant an official review of teardowns. Like Ansley Park and many other National Register neighborhoods, VaHi is inching toward a level of loss of contributing structures that could see it delisted while preservation becomes a proxy debate about development or lifestyle visions.

“What we’re coming to is a critical mass in this conversation,” said David Yoakley Mitchell, executive director of the Atlanta Preservation Center. “It’s not really about this school and this neighborhood, but for Atlanta – what is our culture and what is our identity?”

VaHi’s history goes back more than a century to its development as a streetcar suburb. Its culture and identity today are rooted in a successful battle in the 1970s against a highway that would have plowed through the neighborhood. Now, instead of freeway asphalt, it’s known for historic architecture and classic pubs.

A 2018 update to a VHCA-commissioned neighborhood master plan sought to position the neighborhood for adaption to a real estate boom and housing affordability pressures. The plan embraces higher-density housing in certain areas and inclusionary zoning to add affordability along the BeltLine. But it also is wary of impacts from the BeltLine, which runs along the neighborhood’s western border between Ponce de Leon and Amsterdam avenues.

IJP, based at 604 Cooledge and using two adjacent houses on Cooledge and Monroe, sits at the heart of the area of BeltLine concerns. On the other side of Monroe, between Cooledge and Cresthill avenue, is the strip of commercial and residential buildings a developer in 2018 sought to combine with BeltLine right of way to make a hotel tower, hundreds of apartments, a grocery store, and more. That plan was beaten back by neighborhood opposition, but the VHCA remains wary of a revival. And across Cooledge is a commercial site recently bought by the Atlanta Botanical Garden for a cool $13.5 million for unclear uses that have stirred neighborhood talk.

Daycares or preschools have operated in the 604 Cooledge houses since the 1950s, though others have moved to expand elsewhere. IJP did not respond to a comment request, but project filings show its current plan is to demolish 604 and 608 Cooledge and 1041 and 1045 Monroe, replacing those houses with a single large building extending behind a small commercial building at the Monroe/Cooledge intersection.

Jack White, co-chair of the VHCA’s planning committee, said IJP is a longtime local institution whose owners live in the neighborhood and provide an obviously in-demand service. He said IJP has made several adjustments to the plan over the past year and a half. A big one, he said, relates to zoning. The 604 Cooledge building is currently zone C-1, a medium-density commercial designation, which it obtained around 20 years ago for unclear reasons since preschools are allowed in the local R-4 residential zoning as a special-permit use. IJP has agreed to make the combined properties all R-4, a move that recently gained approval from the City Zoning Review Board.

White calls the change “downzoning” that is unheard of in the neighborhood and important leverage against mega-developments that might come.

“So we’re sitting here looking at those [zoning changes] and thinking, ‘This is not the problem. This is good news,’” said White.

However, a sometimes bitter neighborhood debate ensued. Among the opponents is Cresthill resident Jenifer Keenan, who calls the IJP expansion a “square peg in a round hole” that could lead to more houses being bought up in the future.

“I think that there has been such a focus on the purported downzoning that people are not seeing the forest for the trees,” she said, adding it “will not prevent commercial creep, and the project itself is commercial creep.”

Disagreement swirls around almost every element of the proposal at this point, from whether it will increase traffic congestion to the impacts of an improperly noticed VCHA committee meeting. As the project continues to wend its way through City rezoning and variance processes, there is substantial disagreement on whether it should be allowed at all under the language of the R-4 zoning code, with City decisions and staff opinions so far favoring IJP.

There are also different interpretations of the VaHi master plan. White points to a section about using R-4 as a wall against commercial development pressures. Keenan got the consultant hired for the project to note, in an email she shared with SaportaReport, that the master plan indeed calls for preserving National Register homes and not changing property lines or zoning in that area. But that consultant, Aaron Fortner of Canvas Planning Group, also said the R-4 barrier idea has “merit” if the VHCA developed standards for doing so.

“I think you all need to develop a set of rationale[s] that explain this variation from the plan and laying the groundwork for dealing with these kinds of things again in the future,” Fortner said.

There are some obvious questions here about the utility of current zoning in this type of high-pressure development area, school expansions in residential areas, and the National Register’s intent to encourage preservation while being unable to prevent demolition.

“We were trying to save the historic – small ‘h’ – historic districts of Virginia-Highland,” said White of the limited tools, adding a “whole new form of zoning” for R-4 could help as the City contemplates a code rewrite.

An irony of the dispute is that Keenan and White were allies in the call to establish a City landmark district in the area – that designation that provides legal teeth to reviewing demolition and some new construction. Keenan introduced a landmark district application a couple of years ago that would have included the IJP area, but quickly withdrew it amid local opposition. White said talk of the idea renewed during the expansion debate but led to sometimes ugly commentary, including that such opposition to IJP was rooted in antisemitism.

“People in Virginia-Highland often bemoan when historic bungalows are torn down,” Keenan said of the previous landmark district effort. The idea was modeled on the innovative Poncey Highland Historic District, established in 2020, that combines preservation and review with a more flexible, character-oriented approach to allow for some building changes and new development. Keenan said she believes the effort failed because people misunderstood it as highly restrictive.

White says he’s pro-preservation – he spoke to SaportaReport in a joint interview with the APC’s Mitchell – and wished Keenan’s effort succeeded. “It really angered me because I really believe in the landmark district. I’m really proud of what Poncey Highland pulled off and I’d love to do it here,” he said.

White added that a “supreme irony” is that some opponents to IJP’s proposed teardowns also opposed that landmark district, which would have provided very different legal leverage today, and have also altered or demolished their own historic houses. “That takes chutzpah,” he said.

Meanwhile, White said, IJP considered keeping the houses before deeming it infeasible for the expansion plan.

Mitchell notes that preservation tactics and opportunities are often discussed only in the heat of opposition to a project where details are lost and grudges are formed. No regulatory tool is perfect enough to prevent neighborhood battles. But toothless historic districts and a stalled zoning code rewrite are clearly not speaking a language with enough meaning for modern Atlanta.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrew Sheldon November 16, 2022 1:55 pm

    I don’t believe it’s correct that IJP owners live in Virginia Highlands but that’s beside the point. As a resident and neighbor of the school for the entirety of its existence, I can attest that we support our neighborhood schools. The current issues are about increasing traffic on our small streets, changing the character of the mostly bungalow style neighborhood by introducing a commercial looking building, not providing sufficient parking for school staff and drop-offs, and violating zoning regs in the process. I wonder why this smallish preschool feels the need to expand like this when the pushback from the neighbors is so clear.Report

    Reply
    1. Suz Smith November 22, 2022 2:58 pm

      As the Director of a preschool I can tell you that traffic will be a huge issue. It always is. Unless there is a solid plan it will just make things worse. When we started our preschool The city demanded that we have a staggered drop off and pick up which we were able to do as we are a full day preschool. It’s delightful that the school is expanding as we need more Quality care options for families and this particular preschool has a wonderful reputation. Maybe creating a plan that allows minimal traffic congestion could help allow this expansion to go through with community support.Report

      Reply

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