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In debate on saving a historic West End house, everyone can agree there’s gotta be a better way

The porch of the “Cherub House” at 731 Lawton St. in the West End. (Credit: Kelly Jordan) The porch of the “Cherub House” at 731 Lawton St. in the West End. (Credit: Kelly Jordan)

By John Ruch

Last month, I told you about 731 Lawton St., a 120-year-old house in the West End Historic District that’s on the verge of collapse after years of neglect. I wondered if a preservation process with more collaboration and fewer crackdowns might be a better way of saving the many such buildings around town.

I didn’t hear from the homeowner, Jordania Williams, for that column, but since then she’s reached out to say her experience has been far from collaborative. On Aug. 25, after months of deferrals, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission finally approved her plan to rebuild much of the house — but with a condition that requires redesigning it, a move Williams calls “talking in circles” and has her more inclined to pay an attorney than an architect. Then there’s the review and ongoing commentary from the Preservation & Urban Design Committee of West End Neighborhood Development, which Williams feels treated her unfairly and where some mutual distrust has simmered.

But before we get to that, let’s talk about what the homeowner and the committee agree on, because that collaborative future might still be in reach for future projects. They agree the surviving part of the house — a porch decorated with a cherub — deserves to be saved. And they believe a more effective method, especially for imminently endangered buildings, would include a pre-application meeting with property owners and City experts, rather than today’s iterative process, which can become a guessing game that drags on for months or years and hikes the costs.

“I think they should take into account a homeowner is paying for these things to happen and it’s not a cheap process,” said Williams, who describes the current process as often “working backwards.” She estimates the back-and-forth has cost her an extra $10,000 to $20,000 so far.

“There is a better way,” says Caleb Racicot, the WEND committee’s co-chair and a professional planner with expertise in writing historic codes. The City review of alterations to historic properties can include an “onerous” requirement for the applicant to conduct a survey of surrounding properties themselves and provides short notice on requested changes prior to UDC votes, he said. He suggested more proactive studying done by the City itself, an ombudsperson to help applicants and, like the City does for major rezoning cases, a pre-application review with staff members so everyone knows the playing field before UDC votes. And maybe that could all be “streamlined” in urgent cases.

“Can there be public resources to figure this stuff out?” he asks “… [B]ecause I hate, hate, hate spending every other Wednesday with applicants [offering the committee’s advice] because we don’t know what the City will be saying.”

Fact is, there aren’t many public resources right now in the City’s tiny Historic Preservation Studio, which in many ways is already punching above its own weight. Atlanta is actually ahead of the curve on nationwide changes in how historic preservation is defined and enforced, but many of its good ideas remain on paper. One change on the proactive side is the recent hiring of a code enforcement officer specifically for historic preservation and districts, which will supplement the staff’s other independent reviews.

“This can be an additional source of information about a property’s situation that can be taken into account by the Urban Design Commission,” said Paula Owens, a spokesperson for the Department of City Planning.

Of course, an election year is a good time for citizens to request more such resources.

The damaged interior of the rear of the historic house at 731 Lawton St. in the West End as it appeared in late July, provided by owner Jordania Williams.

Williams, who runs a daycare and an online clothing boutique, grew up next door to 731 Lawton and wants to return to the West End. She says she loves the historic homes, and her mother still lives next door. Williams bought 731 from an owner who had let it fall into major disrepair, with a caved-in roof, and she thought preservationists would be thrilled she sought to rebuild it. Instead, she says, she feels viewed as unworthy of the work and subjected to a process dragged out to wear her down mentally and financially so she has to sell to someone else.

“It’s just dragging it out on purpose,” she said. “I really do believe it’s personal. It’s very personal.”

In government, as they say, nobody’s entitled to a perfect process, just a fair one. There are of course good reasons to have a bureaucracy to temper decision-making and whose technocratic expertise may not match outsiders’ ideas of common sense. Neighborhood associations are notorious for internal dramas and inevitable deeply personal tensions between homeowners and community rules.

All that being said, the review of 731 Lawton does not always seem focused on the urgency that the surviving historic facade might fall over or catch fire any day.

There’s the traditional disconnect between the UDC and the police-operated Code Enforcement, which again ordered a safety-related demolition of 731 Lawton Aug. 26, the day after the UDC approval. (Never fear, the City’s glacial permitting pace means any tear-down would be six to 12 months away, Williams said she was told.)

Williams says she’s been confused by the UDC decisions, which can be hard for the general public to follow as well, and came after months of deferrals and other wrangling. To paraphrase “The Princess Bride,” the UDC’s “approval” may not mean what you think it means. An April approval of demolishing the house really meant an attempt to save the porch from the already ruined rear. And the approval of the reconstruction plan really meant a size-and-style do-over in collaboration with City staff — which could speed things along after all, but at the moment left Williams’ architect repeatedly asking what the decision meant.

Committee debates

Then there’s the WEND preservation committee, where personal conflicts have eroded the advisory relationship. (Marquise “Tony” McNeal, president of WEND, did not respond to a comment request.) Williams said she felt targeted by hyper-scrutiny, starting with pre-meeting posts on community and personal Facebook pages by Racicot and his co-chair, Kathi Woodcock. A rumor that seemed to come from that early discussion, and mentioned by the co-chairs in interviews, was that Williams might be taking over the property from another family member who let it fall into disrepair, which she says is not true and put her on the defensive from the start. The committee also began calling it the “Cherub House,” Williams said, a name it never had before that makes it stand out from other requests.

Williams said that such rumors and Facebook comments to the effect that she might not be able to afford the rehabilitation work made her feel the process got too personal and has become biased. “There’s nothing wrong with them loving historic homes. I do, too,” she said. “But why create this type of space? … It’s always craziness.”

Supporting her in those concerns are two other residents formerly associated with WEND: Joanne Rhone, a longtime neighborhood activist who helped create the historic district and until recently served on the preservation committee; and Larry Carter, a former board member now running for City Council.

Rhone said she believed committee reviews often went off track on such personal issues as the size of a car an applicant owned and that she quit in 2018 over concerns that Racicot had a “conflict of interest” because he had a code-writing contract with the City and his husband got a job in the City Planning department. Rhone is also a Williams family friend and has other issues with WEND’s direction. Racicot said he had no conflict of interest in any legal sense, and the City confirmed that his husband does not work with UDC or Historic Preservation in any capacity.

Carter went through the UDC process for changes to his home in 2017-2019 and said the preservation committee got personal with him as well. In early 2019, he got a Fulton County court to issue a temporary protective order against Woodcock related to her involvement in the process, which included complaints about information she sent him about the house and about going onto his property. Woodcock says Carter misinformed the court about her actions and that she only sent him legitimate info and visited once with permission. She believes the order was intended to bar her from UDC comment — which it did — after she reported that work was done on his property without a permit.

Racicot and Woodcock say the committee doesn’t play favorites. “We treat everyone, residents, investors, and applicants, equally,” said Woodcock in an email. “The Historic Regulations are City of Atlanta ordinances. We work with applicants to formulate plans that comply with the law, we help them navigate the AUDC process, and express our recommendations at the commission’s public meetings.”

And, Woodcock noted, the committee ultimately supported Williams’ plans, albeit with the conditions requiring alterations.

But, Racicot acknowledged, the tone sometimes gets confrontational. “Kathi is — I don’t know how to say this, I know you’re taking notes — she’s not as diplomatic as me. We tend to play good cop/bad cop,” he said. “I think part of it is personally driven, given that some people don’t have as good people skills as others.”

And, he says, the committee has its internal differences on the big changes underway in historic preservation. “This is a really important, not only Atlanta conversation, but a national conversation [about]… what is the future of historic districts in this era of Black Lives Matter, this era of housing crisis, this era of global warming,” he said. Some members, hewing to classical views, “see a historic district as freezing something in time,” he said. “I tend to take the approach that neighborhoods are not museums. They are reflections of people who have [inhabited] and currently inhabit them.”

Williams says she thinks some of the historic details preservationists might prefer in the new construction are over the top, but that she’s sincere about attempting to save the porch. She feels the process, rather than extending a helping hand, has thrown more obstacles in her way while the clock ticks.

“It’s just getting worse and it’s getting worse,” she said of the house’s condition. “…But I am determined to get it right to get it done. And for all the people who thought it wouldn’t happen.”

Update: This story has been updated with information about the temporary protective order case Carter obtained against Woodcock.

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17 Comments

  1. Jennifer Butler August 31, 2021 1:37 pm

    Your article is spot on. Many of us who are front and center in the permitting process in Atlanta have been frustrated by the delays and the lack of communication between departments for years. When is comes to historic preservation which is very important, the delays are costly and potentially dangerous for the exact thing you are trying to preserve. It often feels like being punished trying to do the right thing. If you don’t do it daily, you often don’t know where to turn for things or how to get what you need. The city development really needs to host a focus group with users (developers, architects, design companies, investors) instead of relying on their own internal feedback. Providing resources for where to go for things and definitions of what they are. We can all work as a team to save these properties & make the process better to save things.Report

    Reply
    1. Jennifer August 31, 2021 1:45 pm

      Let me clarify, it’s spot on about the city (ie code enforcement not being aware of what happened at zoning, UDC or building and long delays between things while also still trying to gather and guess). I can’t say anything about this particular house, process, WEND, etc.Report

      Reply
  2. C August 31, 2021 1:52 pm

    These “historic preservationists “ are just stewards of redlining. Trying to keep certain people with lower incomes from making improvements and preventing long term homeownership. Living in the west end I watch that committee and it’s members cherry pick some and hen peck others to death with personal assessments in lieu or progressive development. It’s sad.Report

    Reply
  3. Charles Arnold September 1, 2021 8:15 pm

    Worked for six years at HQ of American Association for State & Local History, helped organize an historical preservation workshop
    and agree with what your reporter is saying about the historical preservation group. First, quality of building construction back in years saw much higher quality of materials going into old properties making work financially rewarding once done. Our program also disclosed wooden structures here in South see rapid deterioration after prolonged exposure to water, especially when the roof leaks or water puddles inside on wooden floors or dribbles down plaster walls. When homeowner wants to preserve old buildings, the local historical organization needs to quickly granted repair permits and aprovals that’ll allow repairs…not long, drawn-out bickering about who does work, how and when it’s to begin….not impose lengthy regulation delays because neighbors or modern-day construction codes have to be considered. Preservation of historic homes adds a lot of “class” to neighborhoods, improve home values up and down he streets close- by.Report

    Reply
  4. Jordania Williams September 10, 2021 12:00 am

    Kathi, firstly do not title my home as the cherubs house, as you have not given titles to any other property’s in Historic West End. Those plans were approved by UDC staff and all guidelines were followed. I find it odd that the only history you speak on is about a white rich banker; however it was the first African American co-op grocery store built in the early 1900s not the 1800s. You nothing about this home. You want to tie me to previous owners which is untrue and unfair. Because you have made erroneous statements and obsessed over my property, inclement weather has caved the house in from the second floor to the first floor. You have lied to the neighborhood, UDC, and the city. You wrote an email stating a tree was removed from the property, that still stands in the yard today. You need to stop being unethical and act with integrity. You have disrespected the President of WEND and the entire neighborhood , with misleading information that is only in your favor. You constantly email UDC concerning my home. There is truly an obsession and I’m asking you to please STOP.Report

    Reply
  5. M September 10, 2021 8:30 am

    As a owner in the West End, I too have had issues with the historic preservation committee. It should not be this difficult as a homeowner to improve your home. I think that the committee members should be retrained, take an oath to uphold integrity, be required to show burden of proof(tangible) and not just “hear say”. We are all neighbors trying to make the neighborhood a safe and beautiful place to live in. Why should we be enemies? We are in 2021! Enhanced styles and material to build are on the rise. We must keep up with the times while preserving our homes. Let’s work together!Report

    Reply
  6. Hailey September 10, 2021 12:31 pm

    This article is well written. It carefully articulates and addresses the disturbing concerns that many members of the community and homeowners of the historic West-End have had for an ongoing period of time. I’ve sat through numerous zoom meetings with this board committee, and it seemingly, controlled by the opinions and obnoxiousness of the historic preservation mainly, Ms. Cathy Woodcock. Every meeting seems bias, overpowered with emotions, and unnecessary bickering. Residents who are trying to preserve their homes are left with limited resources and deferrals which is costly, frustrating, and time consuming. The longer these projects are dilatory, the more homes will deteriorate and homes are subjected to loss and denied preservation due to timeliness. The homeowners should be able to make variations as long as they stay with in the structure of their neighborhoods . We need to bridge the gap amongst property owners , WEND, UDC, and housing code. Residents should not be limited or subject to personal gratification. We need new historic preservations board members who actually care about all residents and are proactive fairly within the Westend. Members who are actually home owners and work as a team to get speedy approvals so that homeowners can move into their homes safely and peacefully and ensure satisfactory within our neighborhoods . In addition, we need to reunite all departments in order to help properly educate residents and make this process less complicated and more of an excitement as people make modifications to their homes. After all people are going to be living in these homes for decades and we wish to live in our current century not the 1800’s.Report

    Reply
  7. Hailey September 10, 2021 12:35 pm

    This article is well written and spot on. It carefully articulates and addresses the disturbing concerns that many members of the community and homeowners of the historic West-End have had for an ongoing period of time. I’ve sat through numerous zoom meetings with this board committee, and it seemingly controlled by the opinions and obnoxiousness of the historic preservation mainly Ms. Cathy Woodcock. Every meeting seems bias, overpowered with emotions, and unnecessary bickering. Residents who are trying to preserve their homes are left with limited resources and deferrals which is costly, frustrating, and time consuming. The longer these projects are dilatory, the more homes will deteriorate and homes are subjected to loss and denied preservation due to timeliness. The homeowners should be able to make variations as long as they stay with in the structure of their neighborhoods . We need to bridge the gap amongst property owners , WEND, UDC, and housing code. Residents should not be limited or subject to personal gratification. We need new historic preservations board members who actually care about all residents and are proactive fairly within the Westend. Members who are actually home owners and work as a team to get speedy approvals so that homeowners can move into their homes safely and peacefully and ensure satisfactory within our neighborhoods . In addition, we need to reunite all departments in order to help properly educate residents and make this process less complicated and more of an excitement as people make modifications to their homes. After all people are going to be living in these homes for decades and we wish to live in our current century not the 1800’s.Report

    Reply
  8. J Reese September 10, 2021 9:40 pm

    This is a bias attack on a young adult who has grown up in the neighborhood and truly love historical homes. There should be a major overall on WEND, Atlanta Urban Design. and The Preservation Committee of Historic Westend.. Allow all homeowners in the Historic District the opportunity to restore and not live primitively. Remember, we are living in the 21st century. This home had a second story added in the 1970’s, before the area was deemed Historic. Look at the photo, it displays the staircase leading to the second floor.Report

    Reply
  9. TG September 12, 2021 11:22 am

    This article was well written. How much do we have to endure before justice take place. This lady is very intelligent and is capable in handling the project. There seems to be a bias or racist undertone to this case. Maybe you need new people in the UDC and the Preservation Committee of Historical West End.Report

    Reply
  10. V September 12, 2021 9:13 pm

    V-Tha Atlanta mayor’s office should investigate and bridge the gap between Urban Design, the property owner, historic V-neighborhood committees, and housing code. It appears Urban Design has unlimited power engaging with the board. The board leans primarily on UDC to navigate and give resolution and they vote often in the committee’s favor.All committees roles needs to be improved immensely to ensure all fairness to everyone involved, especially the homeowner who has to restore and pay taxes with their hard earned salaries.Report

    Reply
  11. Darlene Harris September 15, 2021 12:49 am

    It is time for Kathi to step down. As an investor, I have sat in on UDC calls, where she is very racist and opposes every single project. She is not a homeowner in the west end and doesn’t pay taxes and should not have any say so.Report

    Reply
  12. R. Baul September 15, 2021 12:52 am

    Homeowners have been treated unfairly for many years although they are the ones who are paying for costly repairs. I understand Historic preservation and preserving homes however we are in 2021 and homeowners want to update and should not be frowned upon when asking to update or add to their homesReport

    Reply
  13. ChillyC September 16, 2021 5:15 am

    I live in the same block of this particular house. I am friends with the owner, and she speaks the truth. For nearly a decade i have followed her and the efforts she has been making on the aforementioned house.
    Being a Historic West End home owner & renter for over 13 years i can say this.
    The bureaucratic folks are desperate to cling to their power. We see that being played out all over the globe today. What do you think is going to happen when Atlanta gets one of these floods, or fires, or hurricane? Do you think these restrictions and laws will even matter when the 85% of Atlanta Apartment residents whom have opted to not pay rent this past year are now homeless. And, surely this time next year, how much food will really be on Kroger shelves after the devastating agricultural destruction the mid west and west experienced this past few years? Right now we need to be a tribe. A community. That means helping our neighbors . Taking care of our clan. Keeping roofs over all our heads and ensuring a food and water source. And this was so well written and to the point. That is a joke. 3/4 was hearsay in the court if law & if you were to have admitted that to Judge Judy she would have thrown it back at you due to all the personal opinion and gossip . The internecine strife of the West End associations and such is not relevant or helpful. And, if it is true then its time to clean the whole house & fill each seat with a new face.Report

    Reply
  14. Meyond Thomas September 16, 2021 8:35 pm

    I live in the neighborhood and wanted to replace my porch and had a very hard time.Report

    Reply
  15. Nay September 17, 2021 11:25 am

    Being an ex-employe for a construction company that did a lot of repairs and rebuilding in the Historic Westend. I know that’s it’s a money game and who you know. I think it’s so unfortunate that this young lady is trying rebuild and preserve the historic traits of this home and she’s getting the run around. Is it because she Young and Black? We have to do better as a neighborhood and stand behind those that are trying keep the value of the neighborhood up and beautiful!Report

    Reply
  16. Carole C September 17, 2021 2:34 pm

    Carole C- Revise WEND, Atlanta Urban Design, and The Board of Commission. Historic neighborhoods need fairness, guidance, and opportunity to understand guidelines with scrutiny and professionalism.Report

    Reply

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