By Julia Ritchey, as published in the Savannah Morning News on June 26, 2014
Demolition plans are a go for 240 W. Broughton Street after the Zoning Board of Appeals voted to overturn a decision by the Historic District Board of Review denying that request.
The petitioner, attorney Harold Yellin representing Ben Carter Enterprises, said the historic board had abused its discretion during the May 14 hearing by designating the property historic.
The gray building adjoins 246 W. Broughton Street, the yellow brick McDonald’s, and houses the law offices of Wiseman, Blackburn and Futrell. Both were constructed in 1924 and were originally identical until 240 West underwent extensive alterations during the 1970s and again during the early ‘80s.
Developer Ben Carter has proposed tearing it down in order to construct a larger contiguous building to lease to international clothing retailer H&M. Carter owns 240 as well as the empty lot next door, formerly the Chatham Furniture department store before it burned down.
The historic board denied Carter’s petition last month because it said the overall building retained historic significance and its demolition would be in conflict with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards. They also stated concerns it could materially damage the neighboring McDonald’s.
The four members who voted to overturn the historic board were Timothy Mackey, Brian Reese, Eli Kartosses and Sidney Johnson. Member Tommy Branch was the lone dissent.
Jack Butler, a staff planner at the Metropolitan Planning Commission, told the board it could either affirm, overturn or remand the decision back to the historic board, but that the issue of whether they agreed or disagreed with the decision was irrelevant.
“It’s not our place as the Zoning Board of Appeals to second guess the Historic District Board of Review,” said Butler. “The cases that come to us are procedural … it’s not whether it was a good decision or a bad decision.”
Chairman Mackey interjected that he disagreed with Butler, saying he believed they would decide on whether the historic board “made the proper call or not — play that how you want.”
The board was presented with much of the same evidence shown to the historic board in May and rarely touched on the narrow issue of whether the board acted properly. The debate lasted for more than two hours as the board volleyed questions and, frequently, lengthy opinions back and forth.
A major sticking point during the hearing was that one half of the building (McDonald’s) is listed as a “contributing” structure on the city’s historic building map while 240 is not — likely due to the alterations to its façade.
“When it arrived at (the historic board) it was not historic, but when it left it was. We have a problem with that,” said Yellin. “We think it was an abuse of discretion to take a piece of property and move it from being non-historic to historic.”
Staff clarified that although the building is not listed as “contributing,” it is still within the board’s purview to evaluate all demolition requests within the National Historic Landmark District. During the May hearing, the planning staff said its research had revealed significant historic fabric underneath and concluded that its non-contributing status was likely an oversight.
Attorney James Blackburn is the current tenant and former co-owner of 240 West Broughton, who sold the building to Carter. Contacted last month he said he had no opinion on the demolition petition, but appeared Thursday to speak in favor of the developer’s plans to add more retail stores to the Broughton Street corridor.
“The historic façade is no longer there and no longer restorable,” Blackburn told the board.
Ruel Joyner, owner of 24e Design Co. on Broughton, also spoke in support of Carter’s plan. He said he believed the Broughton Street project should be looked at in totality.
“This gentleman (Ben Carter) is working on restoring 27 properties and how many is he asking to remove? Only one,” said Joyner.
Mackey seemed the least convinced of the building’s historic integrity. At one point, he called architect Patrick Phelps’ PowerPoint presentation “profound” and asked several pointed questions at staff but not the petitioner.
Speaking against demolition, Daniel Carey, president of the Historic Savannah Foundation, argued that just because a building is unsightly does not make it less worthy of preservation, using an analogy to comedienne Joan Rivers.
“Joan Rivers is still Joan Rivers no matter how bad she looks today,” said Carey. “Let’s be honest, the owner doesn’t want to restore that building, it’s not that he can’t.”
Ryan Arvay, a member of the public, also spoke against demolition. He urged the board to trust the expertise of the historic board and planning staff and not to let the promise of “economic development” sway their decision.
The zoning board’s action means the Metropolitan Planning Commission will now issue a COA, certificate of appropriateness, allowing demolition.