Gainesville officials are beginning to pursue a local historic designation for the downtown area, which could help preserve the exterior look of the buildings.
The local designation, separate from the National Register of Historic Places, would allow downtown businesses to take advantage of three tax incentive programs that help with rehabilitation.
Jessica Tullar, the city's special projects manager, explained the idea to the Main Street Advisory Board on Tuesday and noted the importance of getting the community on board with the concept before moving forward.
"We'll take it slow so everybody has the opportunity to truly understand what it means and what it does not mean," said Tullar, who helped the Green Street and Ridgewood Avenue neighborhoods go through the historic district process.
"If we move forward with this, we can apply for a grant by January to help us draft the guidelines," she said. "We've already received five grants over the past five years, so we have a good foundation to be approved again."
The national registry does not protect buildings from irreversible or incompatible changes, but a local historic designation could include those guidelines.
"We tend to see significant weather events here, as noted by the upcoming anniversary of the 1936 tornado that destroyed downtown," Tullar said. "If a storm like that occurred again and wiped out the downtown area, there's nothing in place to monitor the rebuilding process. Folks could come in and build anything."
A local designation would mark the downtown area as an important aspect of Gainesville and worthy of preservation.
"It says we want to maintain a sense of place and character, and it also does a lot for the local economy," Tullar said. "Most people traveling through as tourists are looking for historic designations, and studies show they are more likely to stay, shop and dine in historic areas."
The Main Street board approved Tullar's idea to move forward with the plan. If the designation is approved by the Gainesville City Council, property owners who want to significantly change the exterior of their buildings would seek approval from the city's Historic Preservation Commission.
"This wouldn't require owners to take their building back to the original state, which some folks are concerned about," Tullar said. "They just have to maintain the property. Only if they make exterior material changes does this process come into play."
City officials plan to work with property owners to make the process as streamlined as possible.
"We're a business-friendly community, and the design review system allows for minor work review to happen at the staff level," she said. "For example, if an applicant wants to restore the brick, that's a good preservation move."
Tullar will mail notices to all property owners included in the proposed district and will hold several public hearings before the historic designation becomes final.
"This type of preservation truly is local, and it should be a very involved public process," she said.
"We took time to educate as many property owners as possible when we worked on the Green Street area, and we'll do the same with this one to make sure all of the questions and concerns are addressed."