Published on February 1st, 2023 | by Jordan Bankhead0
The State of Our City: January 2023
By Jordan Bankhead, Recovering Lawyer, Serial Entrepreneur, and Victim of the Velvet Ditch
Recovering from the aftermath of the historic Christmas Eve storm, Oxford’s Board of Aldermen met January 3. Rob Neely, superintendent for Oxford Utilities, reported that for the first time in over 80 years, TVA (which supplies Oxford’s and much of the southeastern United States’ power) nearly crashed as power demand exceeded supply. Neely reported that due to outages at some TVA power plants, Oxford and other local utilities were told to cut electricity by 5 and then 10 percent. Although some rolling blackouts were necessary, in the end Oxford and the entire region TVA serves dodged a bullet as power cuts were not as bad as feared. Reviews at TVA and across local utilities are currently in progress to determine how this near catastrophe similar to what Texas experienced in February, 2021, can be avoided in the future.
As temperatures thawed and January proved unseasonably warm and wet, the Historic Preservation Committee met on January 19. Admittedly your author did not know much about the historic preservation committee prior to this month. As one would imagine, the committee is filled with older Oxford residents with ties to the community going back generations in some cases. The committee’s work centers on landowner requests to demolish existing structures, modify them, or build new structures in Oxford’s historic districts, generally located around The Square, North Lamar, and South Lamar. This month the action centered on one street—Pierce Avenue. Pierce Avenue is located between South Lamar and South 16th Street. This street is extremely eclectic and has condos, new homes, old homes, a Bed and Breakfast, and a commercial building located at the corner of Pierce and South 16th. Despite this diversity that grew up over the years, Oxford leaders decided the street had historic significance when they determined the location of the South Lamar historic district.
Two cases on Pierce Avenue presented at the Committee’s meeting in January demonstrate the unique challenges of historic preservation, especially given the many changes that predate the formation of the district. Case 714 at 1516 Pierce presented a kind of plain Jane house built in 1945 typical for GIs and their families after WWII. This home, as was typical at the time, was small by today’s standards. Many of us (as I do) remember growing up in a home like this. Having previously denied a request to demolish the house at 1516 Pierce and build six new structures in its place, the Historic Preservation Committee now considered an applicant’s request to renovate and add on to the original structure in order to provide a second home for architect Tracy Stites’ clients, who Stites said planned to attend Double Decker and Ole Miss sporting events. She also contrasted the improvements to the home her clients wished to make with the “student rentals” across the street. Following the code, Kate Kenwright, historic preservation planner, recommended the Commission approve the application and they did.
Case 715 presented a more difficult question for the Historic Preservation Commission when architect Jonathan Mattox presented the owners of 1406 Pierce Avenue’s request to demolish the existing structure. The question whether the house should be considered a “contributing structure,” having historic value worth preserving, was negative according to Mattox. According to architect Mattox, while the home dates to 1945, it had a significant addition and remodeling in 1980. The result of that remodeling was a carport encroaching over the neighboring property line, part of the house lying over the city’s setback lines, and other structural and drainage issues as a result of the renovation. In this case, the Committee decided to table a decision and considered a site visit to learn more before making a decision. Other more run-of-the-mill applications were also heard, but the two cases on Pierce Avenue go the heart of the historic preservation debate. On the one hand, preservationists wish to protect the character and historic significance of a place. While laudable, these goals can have unintended consequences like gentrification that denies students and other low-income residents convenient housing options. On the other hand, builders and developers provide more economical housing options, but new structures may undermine the sense of place that gives communities their uniqueness. Balancing is often the best approah, but quite difficult, as the cases on Pierce Avenue demonstrate.