Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Woolen Mills Historic District

Lyle Solla-Yates

The Woolen Mills neighborhood of Charlottesville, Virginia presents an excellent case study to understand historic preservation laws and their effects. I will attempt to answer several questions: Is Woolen Mills historic? Why hasn’t it been established as a historic district already? How would a historic district contribute to the neighborhood? Would property rights be affected? And how can the Woolen Mills Historic District be created?

Is Woolen Mills historic?

Written history first mentions the Woolen Mills area before the Civil War, as a busy riverport named Pireus. The reasons for Pireus’ importance were geographic. Moore’s Creek runs into the Rivanna River at this point, where strong rocky high ground provides a dramatic site for development. This area also provides a relatively easy ford across the river named Secretary’s Ford (currently where Interstate 64 crosses the Rivanna River). This ford attracted the second highway into Albemarle County, the Mountain Ridge Road, later called the Three Notched Road. This site then, was a uniquely attractive site for commerce in the region. The earliest documented commercial activity at this site began with Edward Moore’s water grist mill in 1795 (Britton). The next owner, William D. Meriwether, began an aggressive construction agenda. Beginning around 1817, when the Rivanna became navigable, Meriwether built a dam, a toll bridge, a merchant mill, a saw mill, and a port operation. Two buildings on the National Historic Register date from this period, the House at Pireus (no longer standing) and the Pireus Store, now converted into a private residence at the corner of Market Street and Riverside. The prosperity of what became known as the Charlottesville Factory continued to expand, providing desperately needed manufactured goods to the South during the Civil War. On March 3, 1865, the cotton mill was burned by Union troops. The complex was rebuilt and expanded after the war. The Woolen Mills Chapel was constructed in the 1880s to serve the workers. The Mills closed down in the 1960s as textile manufacturing moved overseas. None of the mill buildings have been added to the historic register. The main building has been demolished, leaving the foundations and the ruins of two accessory structures.

There are some points that make the Woolen Mills particularly interesting in history. The Mills was significant in the Civil War, as a Southern industrial center, source for uniforms, and site of wartime destruction. Pireus is interesting as a remnant of a bygone way of life based on the river, when Albemarle was at the edges of Western civilization. The Reconstruction era Woolen Mills are interesting as a site of blue collar industrial history, a past that is disappearing under the weight of globalization.

Why hasn’t it been established as a historic district already?

According to resident Bill Emory, some people in the neighborhood are afraid that historic designation may hurt the resale value of their property by restricting future uses.

Beyond uncertainties about the effects of historic designation lies the issue of responsibility. The growth of Charlottesville through annexation has left the Woolen Mills neighborhood cut apart, split between the city and the county. The primarily residential and agricultural area has become part of the city, while most of the old mill buildings and the Marchant House (picture above) remain in the county. This political divide makes addressing the Woolen Mills as a whole difficult. Albemarle County has recommended all or parts of six villages for historic preservation (Albemarle County). Woolen Mills is not on that list. The County did include Advance Mills, a similar area which is listed on the National Historic Register. Besides unambiguous jurisdiction, Advance Mills also benefits from a remote location in Albemarle County’s Rural Area (a region intended for preservation of open space) and some historical structures of comparable quality to Woolen Mills. On the Charlottesville side, Planning Commission member Bill Lucy says there are several potential historic districts in line before the Woolen Mills neighborhood can be considered. He has stated publicly that the “Woolen Mills may not be as historic as it thinks it is,” citing the large number of post-World War II houses in the neighborhood. I believe that this view is due to the fragmented nature of the Woolen Mills neighborhood compared to the Historic Woolen Mills. Viewed alone, The Woolen Mills neighborhood can look like a postwar suburb to a stranger. This is how the City of Charlottesville views Woolen Mills.

How would a historic district contribute to the neighborhood?

Albemarle County’s Comprehensive Plan notes that National “register listing provides recognition, but little or no real protection for those resources. Local historic district zoning is the primary means by which government can provide effective legal protection for historic resources and their settings. Moreover, the number of resources destroyed in recent years suggests that continued reliance solely on voluntary measures would not be adequate to protect those resources” (Albemarle County).

Historic designation at different levels has different effects. Listing on the National Register provides:

1. Consideration of historic status in any federal project that may affect the site (meaning an Environmental Impact Statement; projects include federally funded road construction),

2. Availability of a 20% tax credit for rehabilitation of historic properties that produce income (not owner occupied), and

3. Availability of Federal grants for preservation.

After listing, the state of Virginia provides:

1. Grants to local governments to document and preserve historic buildings,

2. Some financial and complete organizational assistance in surveying and planning preservation projects,

3. The option to owners of setting historic preservation easements, which restrict what can be done with the land, but also create significant tax advantages for federal income tax (100% of easement value deducted), state income tax (50% of easement value credited), property tax (taxable value of property is reduced), and estate tax (reduced estate value, plus 40% of land excluded from taxable sum),

4. Availability of a 25% state income tax credit for rehabilitation of historic properties, regardless of whether the owner lives there or not, (this credit can be combined with the 20% federal tax credit for income-producing property), and

5. Qualification for state grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations for historic preservation projects and maintenance.

Albemarle County offers:

1. Nothing yet. They are currently working on the creation of a Historic Overlay District in their zoning ordinance. None of the Woolen Mills lying in the County is listed on the National Historic Register. The closest listed property in Albemarle County is Monticello.

Charlottesville offers local designation as a historic district. This gives a neighborhood:

1. Design control, meaning that any new development or change to the exterior of a building in the historic district is subject to review by the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review on criteria based on “economic feasibility and compatibility of the proposed construction/alteration with the site and other properties in the design control district… [and] that the proposed rehabilitation work complies with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation” (Chapter 7: Historic Preservation, 2001 Charlottesville Comprehensive Plan). Projects can be denied by that body.

That is the full landscape of government programs offered to historic areas like the Woolen Mills. The benefits of the state and federal incentives are fairly unambiguous. Several studies (see for example, “The Impact of Historic District Designation on Property Values: An Empirical Study,” Schaeffer) point to rising property values and greater long term stability of property values in nationally designated historic districts. This improvement in property values may be seen as a potential threat to neighborhood diversity and the goals of affordable housing. A mitigation strategy may be appropriate. Stu Armstrong of the Piedmont Housing Alliance suggests that reverse mortgages may be helpful. Reverse mortgages pay owners the value of their property in one or more payments and then accrue interest in the form of a lien on the property. Reverse mortgages are unavailable to those under 62 years old in the United States (Wikipedia).

Resident Bill Emory has suggested that the Woolen Mills may be an attractive destination for tourists interested in industrial and Civil War history. A tour of the village could add to the existing mix of attractions at Monticello, Ash Lawn, and the University of Virginia (Emory). According to APVA Preservation Virginia, statewide historic attractions bring over 6.5 million visits, a major slice of a $14 billion tourist industry.

Perhaps the most important effect of historic district status may be the consciousness of Woolen Mills history among residents. The preservation of historic buildings and open space can be a source of civic pride and neighborhood identity.

Would property rights be affected?

State and federal registers do not hinder property rights in any significant way. It becomes more difficult for a federally funded project to threaten a historic district, but this is considered to enhance the security of neighborhood investment, a benefit to property owners. Historic preservation easements are established by property owners, and they offer major tax benefits to balance the property rights sacrificed.

Design control at the local level affects property rights, specifically development rights. The Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review can deny a development that they feel is incompatible with the neighborhood. This can also be viewed as a protection of property rights, by preventing projects that threaten the neighborhood. Research on local historic districts indicates a modest decline in property values, most likely due to uncertainty on what will and will not pass muster (Schaeffer). However, a different study of local historic districts in Abilene, Texas had the opposite finding (Coulson). This disparity is most likely due to the presence of a local property tax benefit in Abilene. Affected properties enjoy a $200 or 20% tax break, whichever is higher. The researchers found that the increased tax revenues from restoration and construction in that case significantly outweighed property taxes lost.

How can the Woolen Mills Historic District be created?

The Woolen Mills Historic District currently in the pipeline may be problematic. The City of Charlottesville is planning to create this district within the next few years. Most likely it will be composed of a subset of the Charlottesville Woolen Mills neighborhood, excluding some postwar housing and the Albemarle County section. This De Facto District will be under design control, by a Board of Architectural Review that may not grasp the complex history and character of the neighborhood as well as Woolen Mills residents. Albemarle County may recommend the Marchant House for the National Register. Nothing much will seem to happen.

The Woolen Mills Historic District could become something very different, however. Listing the entire Woolen Mills, including the old mill buildings, the graveyard, and the Marchant House would create a bureaucratic sense of unity that annexation destroyed. Listing would also create some leverage against potential large, federally funded road projects, such as a new onramp to Interstate 64. It would also open up some new financial opportunities to the Woolen Mills as a whole that could create a critical mass for significant preservation efforts, with potential effects on tourism and other businesses.

The establishment of the local historic district could be significantly improved. A similar system to Abilene’s, where property owners enjoy protection as well as tax benefits, may be appropriate in Woolen Mills. Montgomery County’s 10% property tax credit is particularly successful. “The tax credit is 10% of documented expenses for exterior maintenance, restoration or preservation work. The work must be certified eligible by the Historic Preservation Commission.” (Montgomery County Planning Board). The Montgomery County system has the benefit of tying tax benefits directly to investment and maintenance, rather than a tax cut across the board. This aligns the local tax benefit with the overarching goal of historic preservation by reducing the local tax burden on renovation and maintenance in the neighborhood. One weakness of the Montgomery County approach compared with Abilene’s is the amount of regulation necessary to ensure that only those engaged in historic preservation receive benefits. Abilene also benefits every property tax payer in the district, easing the affordability issues that historic preservation can create. An additional option would be a flat property tax cut on buildings in the district, 25% for example. This would have the benefits of a much lower regulatory burden while maintaining the Montgomery County focus on encouraging preservation and maintenance, and rewarding homeowners for investing in a historic district, where their property rights may not be as strong as elsewhere (Durning).

Design control can be shifted to allow greater local control. One method is the Form-Based Code. In this model, the neighborhood meets for a one-week design charette to plan out what they want for the neighborhood. Then whatever fits that becomes the design code. This eliminates the uncertainties of design control by spelling everything out up front. It also puts the neighborhood in the driver seat, protecting it from development that is disruptive to the historic fabric of the neighborhood, while allowing substantial flexibility for creative new designs. “The new codes, he says, focus less on what's forbidden and more on what's desired--the kind of town or city that people indicate they want. Mixed use is welcomed back. Basic rules are specified--for example a range of acceptable building types from apartments and townhouses to detached villas or high-rise towers (leaving individual design, for the most part, to owners)” (Peirce).

The Woolen Mills Historic District, done right, can be very exciting. The historical importance of the area suggests that measures should be taken to preserve it, and there is no shortage of state and federal support to do so. Support at the local level is not yet ideal, but Albemarle County’s current effort to form a historic zone ordinance creates the opportunity for a single Woolen Mills Historic District that bridges both city and county, with the same rules on both sides of the line. This would create a system for preservation that is effective, beneficial to the city and county, and fair to property owners.

Works Cited

1. Britton, Rick. 2006. “The Charlottesville Woolen Mills, Clothing a Nation.”

2. Albemarle County. 2000. “Albemarle County Historic Preservation Plan.”

3. Schaeffer, Peter V. 1991. “The Impact of Historic District Designation on Property Values: An Empirical Study.” Economic Development Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, 301-312.

4. Emory, Bill. 2006. “The Woolen Mills Neighborhood, Charlottesville at Work.”

5. APVA Preservation Virginia. 2006. “Legislative and Local Issues.”

6. Coulson, N Edward. 2001. “The Internal and External Impact of Historical Designation on Property Values.” Journal of Real Estate Finance & Economics, Vol 23, No. 1, 113-24

7. Abilene, City of. “Code City of Abilene Texas: Article IV. Historic Zone Tax Reduction.”

8. Durning, Alan. 1998. Tax Shift. Seattle, Washington: Northwest Environment Watch.

9. Peirce, Neal. 2003.“Zoning: Ready to be Reformed?” Washington Post Writers Group.

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