Historic Belmont: Official designation in the works

Once a humble blue-collar neighborhood, Belmont keeps racking up trendiness points. In March, Dave Matthews Band manager Coran Capshaw reportedly purchased Mas restaurant. And now comes the City to suggest that Belmont– one of the last sources of in-town affordable housing– might soon become a historic district. Whaa?

"It's got one of the original working neighborhoods in the community," says chief City planner Jim Tolbert.

A 1994 study identified Belmont– along with the Corner, the Rugby area, North Downtown, the Martha Jefferson neighborhood, Tenth and Page streets, and Gildersleeve Woods– as potential historic districts. Now the City's planning department is ready to launch studies and pitch the idea of historic designations to the neighborhoods.

"The purpose is to protect historic resources," says Mary Joy Scala, a planner who's assigned to the Board of Architectural Review. "It's a type of rezoning."

First, a consultant surveys all the buildings in a potential district to determine what's historic and what's not. The boundaries are firmed up, and property owners are notified that rezoning is taking place. The historic district must pass muster with the BAR and the planning commission before City Council votes to adopt it.

"There are lots of opportunities for public input," says Scala. "I like property owners to be involved way up front and to get their support."

Not everyone thinks a historic district is a good idea. Hogwaller Rambler band member Jamie Dyer used to live in a section of Belmont around the stockyard known to some as Hogwaller. "The city designating it historic is presaging a Starbucks," he says. "It's the first step in gentrification."

"I don't know it's in fact gentrification," counters Tolbert. "It doesn't have any negative effect on property values, although some will say it does."

"It's way too premature for a historic district," says Joan Schatzman, who's lived in Belmont since 1978. "It inhibits creativity, it inhibits development, it inhibits progress. There's already too much government regulation. I couldn't have done the things I've done on my house that make it more attractive. I think Belmont will be ready in 175 to 200 years. It's still evolving."

Schatzman adds one other point: "There are some crappy houses in Belmont. I know because I'm a builder."

In a historic district, any kind of exterior changes have to be run by the BAR for approval, says Scala. That means additions, and things like changes in the type of roof, windows, and doors all have to have the BAR's blessing.

However, anything that doesn't require a permit can skip going to the BAR. Instead, Scala can administratively approve changing the paint color or adding awnings.

"The very idea somebody can tell me what kind of siding or what color of paint or whether I can build or remove a porch offends me to the core," says Emmett Boaz, who, as a child, spent many a Saturday at the livestock auction in the heart of Belmont. "I regard historic districts as naked power grabs by government," declares the unemployed libertarian.

"I think a neighborhood that values historic resources in the neighborhood will be in favor," says Scala.

Dyer predicts the controversial Hogwaller moniker– "some old-time Charlottesvillians really hate the name"– will be the first to go once real gentrification sets in under a historic district designation.

But perhaps not. "The stockyards are not necessarily in the historic district," says Scala, "just north Belmont."

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