Neighbors at Odds Over Push for Elizabeth Historic District Status
Debate raises question: Who is in charge of dictating a neighborhood's future?
A few blocks southeast of Uptown’s skyscrapers, in the area surrounding Independence Park and further down East 7th Street, sits a neighborhood at the precipice — at least that’s what it feels like to those Elizabeth residents who for months have been embroiled in debate over a proposed historic designation for the neighborhood.
Proponents for the designation fear encroaching development is changing the fabric of the neighborhood. Elizabeth is one of Charlotte’s oldest suburbs, with many homes dating back to the early 1900s, but it’s fast losing its history and charm, these people say, as more and more original structures are altered or demolished to make way for modern development.
Motivated by the potential for higher density brought on by the Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) and more vertical development occurring on nearby Hawthorne Lane, Central Avenue and in the heart of Elizabeth itself, a group of neighbors is pushing for the city to designate Elizabeth as a local historic district (LHD) in the hopes of preserving what’s left.
They view the designation as a tool to protect the older homes and guide future development in a way that’s more consistent with the character of the neighborhood, but not everyone sees it that way.
Over the past several weeks, proponents of the LHD have put up signs around the neighborhood showing their support while hosting a handful of community meetings to gauge interest and share information. The efforts are being led by a group called the Historic Elizabeth Neighborhood Foundation (HENF), which was originally formed in the 1980s and has reemerged in recent years to push back against a surge in development.
HENF’s goal is not backed by the Elizabeth Community Association (ECA), which voted not to support a local historic district designation in 2021. Opponents of the LHD say the regulations imposed in such a designation send an exclusionary message and reduce property rights, thus devaluing homes, and cause home projects to be a costly headache for homeowners.
HENF has continued in its efforts despite the ECA’s opposition. The group has commissioned a historical study of the area, drawn the preliminary bounds of a proposed district and submitted an application to Charlotte’s Historic District Commission, which will review it on May 10 and decide whether to send it to the State Historic Preservation Office.
Ultimately, however, designating Elizabeth as a local historic district requires a rezoning approved by city council, for which more than half of residents will need to be on board. That will prove to be a challenge for HENF as opponents remain steadfast in their resistance to the designation.
Something worth saving
Elizabeth was founded in 1891 on Charlotte’s east side and is the city’s second oldest streetcar suburb. It was originally developed around the trolley lines that ran along Elizabeth Avenue, Hawthorne Lane, 7th Street and Central Avenue, and was arguably Charlotte’s most desirable neighborhood prior to the opening of Myers Park in 1911.
To this day, the neighborhood still contains a large collection of early 20th-century residential construction featuring Craftsman, Colonial/Classical Revival, Arts and Crafts and Tudor Revival styles, plus a significant number of bungalows.
There are also several historical locations in Elizabeth, such as Independence Park, which was built in 1906 as the city’s first public park — though only accessible to white people until parks were integrated in 1955. The park is set to reopen sometime in 2023 after a nearly $6-million makeover.
There’s also the 1924 William Henry Belk House on Hawthorne Lane (Novant Health); the 1913 John Paul Lucas House on East 7th Street (The Fig Tree Restaurant); and the 1913 Cocke-Golden House on East 8th Street — former home of Duke Power executive Norman Cocke, for whom Lake Norman is named, and later author and journalist Harry Golden — among other landmarks.
Clifton Settlemyer, president of HENF, has lived in a house on Clement Avenue built in 1905 for nearly 30 years and seen a lot of changes to the neighborhood during that time.
Since the late 1980s, Settlemyer said, Elizabeth has lost more than 200 structures with historical features and significance due to demolitions and alterations, and now two century-old homes on East 7th Street, including the former Royal Gardens, are under threat of demolition.
Settlemyer said equally out-of-scale homes have been built on Clement and Greenway avenues, East 5th Street, Bay Street and others, impacting Elizabeth’s pedestrian scale, charm and collective sense of space.
The neighborhood has also seen the completion of the four-story Elizabeth on Seventh development, and in January, another developer tore down a slew of long-vacant structures on East 7th Street for a possible mixed-use development. Though no official plans have been filed, Settlemyer believes the project has the potential to dramatically alter the existing height and set a dangerous precedent along the 7th Street corridor.
With the newly-adopted UDO and 2040 Comprehensive Plan adding to the pressures Elizabeth is facing, Settlemyer said it’s time residents have a say in what’s happening.
“I don’t think you have to be a genius — a Nostradamus — to look ahead in Elizabeth and see what direction things are heading,” he said. “And I for one don’t think they’re headed in a good direction.”
HENF hopes that a local historic district designation, though it can’t prevent development, would help ensure future development conforms in scale and design to the historical character and integrity of the community — thus maintaining and preserving Elizabeth’s charm.
And it’s the charm that’s worth saving, said former Charlotte mayor Jennifer Roberts, who’s lived in a 1916-built bungalow on Clement Avenue since 1993.
Roberts said that, unlike modern neighborhoods, Elizabeth streets are conducive to meeting neighbors; homes have deep front porches and small front yards so residents can wave and talk to each other from the sidewalk. She said many trees in Elizabeth are over 100 years old and there are a handful of nearby amenities. She appreciates people wanting to preserve that.
“In less than 15 minutes walk, I can be at a park, a drugstore, a grocery store. I can be at about 10 restaurants. But in the area that’s designated in the historic district, we still have that neighborhood feel,” Roberts said. “We have that sense of front porches, neighbors connecting to each other, seeing each other when they’re out walking. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds and I think that the historic designation would help protect a lot of that.”
Settlemyer acknowledged an LHD won’t solve everything, but said that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be pursued.
“We have a choice, we have UDO or we have LHD. There’s not a smorgasbord of plans out there that’s going to accomplish what any person wants done. I don’t care what side of the issues you are on,” Settlemyer said.
“What I want to do is get LHD passed, implemented, and have unprecedented control over our historic buildings,” he continued. “Unprecedented, but not perfect. Unprecedented, but not preventing change. Just general protection for our historic buildings. And that’s what I’m about and I’m not here to throw stones.”
Another layer of homeownership
Elizabeth is already on the National Register of Historic Places, but unlike a local historic district, the designation is merely honorary. An LHD is a zoning overlay with set standards for the aesthetics and design of new construction and changes to existing properties, like additions and renovations. It does not affect use.
Whether or not a project fits in an LHD is determined by Charlotte’s 12-member Historic District Commission (HDC), which looks at various design requirements like setback, materials, shape, size, scale and signage.
“It is a tool to help manage growth and change,” said Kristi Harpst, HDC program manager. “It is not meant to create a museum out of an area.”
The city is currently home to eight local historic districts: Dilworth, Fourth Ward, Hermitage Court, McCrorey Heights, Oaklawn Park, Plaza Midwood, Wesley Heights and Wilmore.
Property owners in an LHD must get approval from the HDC for most changes to a property’s exterior, whether that property is historic or not. Common improvements like screening a porch, pouring a new driveway, modernizing windows and changing roofing materials require approval, while ordinary repair and maintenance may not.
“The big three misconceptions the commission comes across are, ‘They’re gonna tell me what color to paint my house, they’re gonna tell me how to use my property and the commission can stop demolition,’” Harpst said. “We can delay demolition for a year and request that alternatives are considered, but ultimately state law precludes the commission from stopping demolition.”
Those against the LHD claim the additional layer of review by the HDC will increase the time and cost involved in home projects.
Aaron Houck, an Elizabeth resident and academic who studies land use policy, said that’s the point. He believes the motivation of HENF and its supporters is to slow down development because they don’t want to see newer or bigger buildings, like apartments, since LHDs restrict height.
“That’s the purpose of this policy and that’s how it would function,” Houck said. “It would make it more expensive and more difficult to change the neighborhood of Elizabeth. It wouldn’t make it impossible for things to change. It just makes it more expensive, so less change will occur than would otherwise occur.”
Houck said restricting what owners can do with their property may have an effect on property values. Another possible consequence is residents may not maintain their properties because if it’s too expensive under the new standards, leading homes to go into disrepair, Houck said.
Local journalist Kristen Wile and her husband lived in a 1936-built home in Plaza Midwood’s LHD for six years until issues with the HDC made it more trouble than it was worth, leading her to leave the neighborhood for good.
The HDC denied Wile’s requests to install a second-story skylight and replace her aging windows after one had broken. The board only approved the broken window and told her to repair the rest, but it was too costly.
Wile feels historic district regulations are unreasonable and the strictness makes it difficult for homeowners to maintain their homes.
“It’s not an easy process, like, I had to be sworn in to ask for a skylight. It felt like a lot,” Wile said. “[It’s hard enough] to get anything done on a home already, then you throw up all of the extra steps that come along with owning a home in a historic district and it is a lot. It has to be a passion of yours. It’s not just a home, it’s like you’re also doing a civic duty, and props to everybody who wants to do that but it definitely adds a different layer of homeownership.”
She thinks the HDC could be more lenient and the regulations more practical and modern without losing what the LHD is meant to do.
“Maybe [what’s going on in Elizabeth] is a good catalyst to discuss what the current regulations are, and whether things have become a little bit unfeasible for the homeowners,” Wile said.
Roberts acknowledged that it may take longer and cost more to make changes in an LHD, but insists it’s not as dramatic as opponents claim. She argued the extra layer of review has benefits, especially when planting and removing trees.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit harder, but you know what? Things that are worth saving take more time and are a little bit harder,” Roberts said. “What we’re talking about is having to do a few more steps. And I think in the end, it’s worth it because we all should do a few more steps if we care about preserving our environment.”
Both Roberts and Settlemyer urge neighbors who feel like an LHD comes with too many restrictions to consider residents who live next to potential development areas, and whether it’s worth it to give up a little control for what they see as “the greater good” — protecting the history and character of the neighborhood.
“It’s a shared thing for the community and to be in favor, you have to understand that shared aspect, that you’re in a community and we all need to work together on that,” Settlemyer said.
A ripple effect
Evan Kettler, vice president of the Elizabeth Community Association and chair of the Land Use & Development Committee, called the LHD proposal “tone deaf and misguided.”
He argued that if HENF’s effort is truly about historic preservation then an LHD is not necessary, as individuals can protect and preserve the historic nature of their property by applying to be on the National Register or for an historic preservation easement.
“This is well-entrenched property interests looking to maintain the status quo,” Kettler said. “Well, I don’t own the future. I want you to be able to do what you want with your property, whenever that is.”
Kettler was on the ECA in 2021 when a group of neighbors asked the board to divert funding, endorsement and time toward making Elizabeth a local historic district. After a review, the board voted not to support the effort. Kettler recalled the proposal as being short-sighted.
“I think this is using fear as a tactic — fear of the unknown. The future is always unknown,” Kettler said. “The issue with all of this is the unintended consequences that come from embracing this kind of overlay.”
According to Houck, restrictive land use policies like LHDs often lead to inequitable access to opportunity, which disproportionately affects low-income residents and people of color.
“In Elizabeth, it is disproportionately old, disproportionately white, disproportionately wealthy, compared to the rest of the city,” Houck said. “This is a policy that will perpetuate and potentially exacerbate that fact that Elizabeth does not represent the underlying diversity of the Charlotte community and that’s a trade off.”
As far as monetary barriers in Elizabeth, Roberts countered “that horse is out of the barn.” Her home value went up 50% in the last revaluation.
“I don’t think that people who are looking for affordable housing are going to find it in Elizabeth or Dilworth, or any of the other historic neighborhoods,” Roberts said.
However, height restrictions would inarguably make it tougher for developers to increase density in the area, a tool that many housing advocates say is needed if there’s any hope of confronting the housing crisis throughout the city.
Houck argued that if Elizabeth does not accommodate the new growth and development pressure occurring in Charlotte, that pressure will be displaced to other areas — historically Black neighborhoods like neighboring Cherry and Grier Heights that may have lower property costs.
“Of course, [incumbent residents] don’t want change in their neighborhood. They bought into a neighborhood, it looked a certain way when they got there, it’s understandable that they don’t want to see radical change. Change is disruption,” Houck said. “But their use of policy to prevent that change from happening in their neighborhood has consequences that spill over way beyond their lives.”
Houck said Elizabeth was once forest land, then cotton fields, then a suburban development — there’s no telling what it will be next.
“If we had locked it in forever as forest land, none of us would live there. Same thing if we locked it in as a cotton field. And so we shouldn’t lock it in in its current state,” Houck said. “I love Elizabeth. I love living there. It’s been great for me, but 100 years from now the people who live in Charlotte and the people who live in Elizabeth may want something different, and I want to give them the space and grace to make those decisions for themselves.”
If their application is approved by HDC and the state board, HENF will begin collecting signatures in favor of the LHD. The petition must be signed by at least 51% of parcel owners within the proposed boundaries before it can be presented to city council.
Settlemyer said if it turns out residents on a particular street or block are not in favor, his group could be willing to compromise by redrawing boundaries, but only to a certain extent.
“HENF wants 7th Street to be within the boundaries because we feel that’s one of the most important streets in Elizabeth,” he said. “It’s the street where if there’s unfettered growth, it’s going to destroy 8th Street and if that’s unfettered it’s going to control 9th Street.”
If Elizabeth were to lose any more than a few properties, Settlemyer said pursuing an LHD may not be worth it. He’d rather have no historic district than protections for only half the neighborhood.
“I’m convinced if one of us ends up with LHD, and the other doesn’t, the neighborhood is gonna split apart. And I’ve told people, I do not want to be the person to split Elizabeth,” Settlemyer said.
“I want people in Elizabeth to make the decision. I don’t want it to be the 12 people on the HENF. I don’t want it to be … the ECA. I don’t want it to be a few people here, a few people there,” he continued. “Let’s find out what people really want. We’ll do what they want and we’ll move on.”
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