A school bus stopped next to the Greenway on East McCarty Street last Wednesday to drop off students who ran to their homes. Each building in the neighborhood was decorated differently — some sporting Halloween decorations, others with plywood over the windows and doors.
Jefferson City residents are working toward making the area between East McCarty, Lafayette, East Miller and Marshall streets a local historic district to protect it from being turned into a park.
Local historian Jane Beetem said the historic district would encompass the 600 block of East McCarty Street, 400 block of Lafayette Street and all of School Street. She also is considering including three houses on the east side of Lafayette Street and 500 Lafayette St.
Beetem still has to get notarized signatures from the property owners in that area and finalize the design standards for the local historic district, but she hopes to present the historic district packet to the Jefferson City Council before the demolition moratorium extension ends Nov. 17.
To create a local historic district, the application must contain 75 percent of notarized signatures from property owners in the proposed district, along with design guideline recommendations and a narrative identifying the historical significance of the properties and area.
Jefferson City currently does not have local historic districts, said Jayme Abbott, Jefferson City neighborhood services manager.
In March, the council approved a demolition moratorium for the East McCarty, Lafayette and School Street area. The city and Jefferson City Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department currently own five properties in that area: 408 and 410 Lafayette St., 602 and 606 E. McCarty St. and 623 School St. The City Council extended the moratorium by 90 days in June and by 60 days in September.
The area is proposed as green space in the Central East Side Neighborhood Plan — adopted by the city in 2006 to revitalize the Central East Side Neighborhood.
Since the area is along Wears Creek and in a 100-year floodplain, the plan notes demolishing the homes would "minimize property loss" during flooding. However, a handful of property owners live in the neighborhood, some working to fix up their homes.
When Tony and Jenny Smith purchased their East McCarty home, they and other property owners in the area were not aware of the plan that proposed turning their neighborhood into a park.
They have spent thousands of dollars to rehabilitate their home and even won the Historic City of Jefferson's Golden Hammer Award. The Smiths said other property owners are trying to rehabilitate their homes in the area, too.
"The plan is 11 or 12 years old, and it needs to be updated," Tony Smith said. "At that time, these were all rentals and no one was doing anything with those properties. But now there's 10 or 11 owners that have been working to bring these properties up. All of that has changed, but (the city) hasn't taken a look at the plan since then."
Beetem and the Smiths said a local historic district would not only make it harder for the city to turn the area into a park but might also encourage homeowners to continue rehabilitating their properties.
If the local historic district is denied and the demolition process proceeds, the Smiths are worried the vacant lots will make it difficult for homeowners in the area to sell their homes. Along with this, when FEMA redrew the floodplain lines in 2012, it also stopped subsidizing floodplain insurance, which discourages potential property owners from purchasing homes in the floodplain, they said.
The Smiths are worried homes could start deteriorating, decreasing their own home's property value. Other worries include the city offering to purchase people's homes and demolishing them.
Sonny Sanders, director of the Jefferson City Department of Planning and Protective Services, said residents should not worry about the city forcing them out of their homes.
"We would maintain those three lots and the Parks department would maintain those and keep them open space, but there is no intention to go knocking on people's doors, making them offers to buy their houses," Sanders said. "There's no desire to go through eminent domain processes. If we can just remove those three houses and the others that the city owns, the city could help reduce the risk for existing homeowners."
Cathy Bordner, a Jefferson City resident and historic preservationist, was on the ad-hoc team that created the Central East Side Neighborhood Plan and said she does not remember discussing converting that area into a park.
The mission statement in the plan says the city needs to encourage economic development and historic preservation. It also says the plan "shall be responsive to appropriate change while maintaining its essential vitality and subject to continuous review."
Bordner said the proposed green space does not comply with the plan's mission statement.
"When people say they are doing things over here to comply with the (Central) East Side Neighborhood Plan, I'll look at this and say, 'OK, are they meeting this statement?' And if they're not, then I'm going to say, 'No, you may be doing part of it, but you're not complying with the mission,'" she said. "And the neighborhood over here, the plan does have green space here but the mission statement says to foster economic development and promote historic preservation. To erase a block of existing housing for green space is not compliant with this plan."
Jerica Hunt, who owns a home on School Street, said she purchased her home because of the neighborhood's history and hopes the city will not tarnish the history behind the area. She said if property owners are maintaining their properties, then the homes should not be torn down, even if it complies with a city plan.
With the homes in a floodplain, city officials said professional planners discouraged redevelopment, and FEMA's regulations make it difficult and expensive for homeowners to redevelop homes in floodplains.
Beetem, Bordner and the Smiths said the neighborhood has not flooded since the 1960s, after the Corps of Engineers created a large concrete ditch to prevent Wears Creek from flooding.
Jenny Smith said she thinks city officials should rethink making the area a green space since there are property owners interested in preserving the buildings.
"I just don't think the city should be promoting historic preservation in one area and demolition in the other like this," she said. "It's not a good plan because we're trying to go through revitalization. There is an economic development to historic development — it goes hand in hand. You don't have to tear down things to move forward with economic development."
On the other side of the demolition moratorium, the city is fighting a time crunch and risks paying back almost $80,000 to the state.
The city purchased 408 Lafayette St. in 2009 for $53,000 with the intention of rehabilitating it with funds from the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the Missouri Department of Economic Development.
The state and HUD announced in March 2016 they would shut down the program, requiring entities to close out projects using NSP funds within 12-18 months. If they do not close out these projects, they risk paying back those federal funds.
City officials invested $78,000-$80,000 in federal funds into the property, Sanders said.
At that time, properties in that area were in a floodplain, but 408 Lafayette St. was not. However, FEMA updated the floodplain map in 2012, and it was placed in the 100-year floodplain.
The city is not allowed to use federal funds on properties in the floodplain, Sanders said, requiring the city to either sell or demolish them.
City officials planned to demolish 408 Lafayette St. as a way to close out that project. Abbott said city inspectors declared the house as dangerous.
Abbott said she wanted to bid out not only 408 Lafayette St. for demolition along with 410 Lafayette St. and 623 School St. to save money. The city started bidding out the environmental review process on the two buildings, which is required before demolition.
However, when the City Council passed a three-month demolition moratorium in March, city staff halted the review and demolition process. Due to the extensions, Abbott said, the bids received through the environmental review process are now void.
Abbott anticipates the state will send out final notices within the next month, explaining the final close-out process.
The city could sell 408 Lafayette St. and use the revenue to help pay back the federal funds, but Abbott said the city would not receive $80,000 for that property. She estimated there would be a difference of $25,000-$30,000 the city would have to take from the general fund balance.
However, under FEMA's substantial improvement rule, the property owner would be prohibited from making improvements greater than 50 percent of the building's value, and city staff estimated rehabilitation costs would exceed that threshold.
"It's a no-win situation with that property," Sanders said. "We're kind of in this rock and a hard place."
While the original plan was to demolish 408 and 410 Lafayette St. and 623 School St., Abbott said, the city might have to abandon that plan and focus on addressing 408 Lafayette St. The city did not use federal funds in the other two buildings, which is why city officials are not as concerned about them as 408 Lafayette St., she added.
Sanders and Abbott said if 408 Lafayette St. was demolished, the lot would be deed-restricted so a four-wall structure could not be built on that property.
The city deed-restricted the 614 East McCarty St. lot, which the Smiths currently own. City officials demolished the building after residents requested it be taken down.
"Neighbors were writing in to us, saying, 'Please remove this structure,' so Community Development Block Grant funds were utilized and the same environmental process review was taken and floodplain notices, and the structure was removed and deed-restricted green space," she said. "So a similar activity has already occurred in that area, so that is a reason why we're just taken aback now because of the outreach and concerns for the area."
The City Council's decision next month on the demolition moratorium will influence the residents' and city's next steps, Beetem and Abbott said.