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Preserving Albany's history

From left are Rozanne Braswell, senior planner of Albany’s Historic Preservation Commission, and Planning Commission Director Paul Forgey.

From left are Rozanne Braswell, senior planner of Albany’s Historic Preservation Commission, and Planning Commission Director Paul Forgey.

ALBANY, Ga. -- As the last major city in Georgia to implement zoning ordinances, Albany has been forced to play catch-up when it comes to preserving historic elements of structures and neighborhoods in the city.

But the eight-member city/county Historic Preservation Commission, along with Planning Commission Director Paul Forgey and Senior Planner Rozanne Braswell, has become more of a presence of late with its diligent efforts to make historic integrity part of the city's redevelopment conversation.

And those efforts are paying off. They can be seen in the newly constructed facades of businesses located in the city's historic downtown district; in remodeled homes, redeveloped neighborhoods and repurposed buildings whose significance is not based merely on present usage.

"One of the functions of the Historic Preservation Commission is to educate the public on why it is important to preserve elements of our community's history," Forgey said. "There are elements of the built environment of our community that makes us unique."

Because Albany was late to the table with zoning ordinances, it is a community whose neighborhoods lost some of their unique flavor through encroachment.

"Unfortunately, you can drive around town and see an industrial building next to residential housing or other structures that essentially encroach upon the concept of neighborhood," Braswell said. "As these types of development occur, it changes the whole integrity of the neighborhood.

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Carlton Fletcher

The Albany Municipal Auditorium is located on Pine Avenue.

"That's why it's important for us to capture the historic significance of our neighborhoods where such significance exists."

Forgey and Braswell work with the Historic Preservation Commission to help determine and preserve such significance. The board, which has four members appointed by the Dougherty County Commission and four by the Albany City Commission, is made up of individuals with unique skills perfectly suited to the task.

"There are a lot of federal and state guidelines that the Preservation Commission must consider, but I think our board is extremely qualified to make sure all regulations are thoroughly covered," commission member Eddie McCarty said. "By the time an issue comes before the board, it must pass through planners with our Planning Commission and two attorneys on our board before we even consider it.

"By that time, it's been very thoroughly vetted."

The two attorneys -- Commission Chairman Greg Fullerton and Vice Chairman Blake Brantley -- are among the city's appointees. The others are McCarty and Deborah Riley. County appointees include architect Mack Wakeford, Sandy Gregors, Anne Wilson and recent appointee Raines Wakeford Watkins.

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Carlton Fletcher

Shiloh Baptist Church

"I think you can see the impact the Historic Preservation Commission and the Planning Commission have had in places like the Old Northside district," Gregors said. "That neighborhood, and some of the homes and buildings in it, has architectural significance and other elements that are true treasures. By working with the residents and business owners in the neighborhood to preserve some of the unique elements of those buildings, you realize the neighborhood's character.

"Unfortunately, one of the largest employers in our city owns a lot of property, and their first idea is to tear down. They're not thinking about preserving. Our first concern should be holding on to what we have."

Historic preservation guidelines, according to Braswell, are established by the federal Interior Department and the state's National Parks Service. Those guidelines are designed to:

  • Protect the historic character and integrity of a district;
  • Provide guidance to design professionals and property owners undertaking construction in a designated historic district;
  • Identify important review concerns and recommend appropriate design approaches;
  • Provide an objective basis for preview to assure consistency and fairness;
  • Increase public awareness of a district and its significant characteristics.

"Preservation guidelines work like covenants you find in many neighborhoods," Forgey said. "Since there's not a lot of money to incentivize local property owners, you have to inspire people to want to (preserve their neighborhood or building's integrity).

"One of the selling points, though, is that studies show if the guidelines are followed, property taxes stabilize and property values increase."

Local attorney Joe Vaknin, who recently purchased the impressive first brick house ever built in Albany, on Flint Avenue, said he had no qualms about following preservation guidelines as he prepared to move into the historic structure.

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Carlton Fletcher

Our Daily Bread on Pine Avenue in Albany.

"There is an outbuilding that needed a new roof, and I was required to buy shingles similar to the ones that were on the building originally," Vaknin said. "I'd done research on the history of the house before I bought it -- I love history, and that's part of the reason I fell in love with the house -- and I felt it was worth (working with the commission to preserve the integrity of the home).

"Some of the original trim and handrails are still in the house, and two of Albany's original street lights are in the front yard. It's an amazing place with an amazing history, and I love living there."

There is an effort among some in the preservation community to look beyond the architecture of a community to its significant natural elements as a preservation focus. Fullerton says he favors such a concept as it applies to the Flint River.

"The concept of turning that portion of the Flint from Andersonville to Plains through our area as far south as there is interest is something worth exploring," the Preservation Commission chairman said. "There's talk of forming an exploratory committee to seek National Historic Area designation. That would allow us to possibly qualify for grants."

Fullerton bemoans the lack of historical emphasis placed on some significant local structures and neighborhoods. That, he notes, is why Albany has lost some of its treasures.

"We've not been as fortunate as some cities," he said. "There was a little boom here after World War II into the '50s where a lot of significant buildings were torn down. We've lost some historic buildings so that there's not really an abundance in our community.

"Of course, that allows us to concentrate more of our efforts on the ones that exist."

Braswell said Albany citizens who aren't aware of the historic treasures in their community should take a look at their city outside the windows of their automobiles.

"We had around 70 people go on a tour of the Old Northside neighborhood, and they kept saying they had no idea how impressive that community is," the senior planner said. "People need to get on a bicycle and ride through some of our neighborhoods. I think they'll be surprised.

"Savannah has done a great job of preserving its historic structures and seamlessly fitting its hotels and retail outlets. People say, 'Albany is not Savannah.' That's true, but what we're interested in is preserving the things that made Albany Albany."