Following nearly three hours of public comment, the Jefferson City Planning and Zoning Commission narrowly voted to remain neutral on establishing the city's first local historic district.
The proposed local historic district would cover 27 parcels in the School Street area — including properties in the 600 block of East McCarty Street, all of School Street, the 400 block of Lafayette Street, three houses on the east side of Lafayette Street, one house on East Miller Street and 500 Lafayette St.
The 5-3 vote was in regards to making a recommendation to the Jefferson City Council for whether to establish the district in the School Street area.
While city staff said the commission's primary purpose was to discuss the design guidelines for the proposed district, public testimonies turned conversations toward race relations and culture in the area, along with the applicants' intentions.
The application primarily focuses on the neighborhood's history — associating the buildings with past Lincoln University officials, segregation and The Foot, Jefferson City's once black business and residential district along Lafayette Street between East Dunklin and Miller streets.
About a half dozen individuals spoke in favor of the local historic district. Applicant Jenny Smith, who owns property in the area, said she felt the local historic district would provide the best protections for the neighborhood, adding 22 of the 28 property owners in the proposed district agreed. She said the district would give the property owners "a sense of pride" and a "voice in their own futures."
"The history of the area, the design guidelines these have merit," she said. "They're worth saving. It's not a prestige beautiful area like Elmerine (Avenue) but we hope to have some day a charming, revitalized district like that."
While not against local historic districts, several individuals spoke against the School Street local historic district, saying it was not inclusive. Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church was not included in the application even though it has more than 160 years of history, the Rev. Cassandra Gould said, adding it was "very odd and actually hurtful" to not be included.
Those opposed said they wanted the commission to reject the current application so residents can look at creating a more inclusive local historic district.
"When (the local historic district is) not inclusive, it's not a community voice," said James Figueroa-Robnett Jr., with the Jefferson City branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It might represent some property owners, but it doesn't represent the community."
After slightly heated public testimonies, commissioners showed mixed thoughts on the topic.
"I don't think this is a black-white issue," commissioner Jack Deeken said. "I think this was a way to save the building. This is about the buildings, not about the culture."
The Historic Preservation Commission reviewed the historic nature of the neighborhood last month and recommended approval of the application.
The application and both commissions' recommendations will go to the City Council for final approval, with a public hearing tentatively slated for 6 p.m. July 16.
The majority of the area is in a 100-year floodplain, and a 2006 city plan recommends turning the School Street area into a green space. Several residents hope establishing the local historic district will discourage the city from turning the area into a park and lift federal restrictions.
Property owners must comply with FEMA's substantial improvement rule if structures are in a floodplain, meaning they can't make improvements totalling more than 50 percent of the structures' values. City staff said federal and state regulators did not provide a definitive answer for whether establishing a local historic district would provide an exemption from the substantial improvement regulation.
If a structure is deemed a contributing historic structure in a certified district, federal floodplain regulations give an exemption from the 50 percent substantial improvement regulation, according to the city staff analysis.
City staff recommended the Planning and Zoning Commission not establish the local historic district as they were worried the primary motivator for the local historic district was to remove the floodplain regulations, while historic districts are meant to preserve the historic character of a neighborhood.
Commissioner Blake Markus said he had "a bad taste in my mouth" regarding the proposed local historic district.
"It somewhat bothers me when I think it's being used to prop up old buildings to get out of federal regulations," he said.
Barron said the local historic district was an "unnecessary tool" for preserving the School Street area, too. City staff recommended the area be a conservation overlay district, similar to the one on East Capitol Avenue. Historic preservationist Jane Beetem said they based the School Street local historic district design guidelines off the East Capitol Avenue design guidelines.
As part of the three-hour meeting, the commission discussed the proposed design guidelines for new and current structures and site features. The primary goal of the design guidelines is for the structures to retain their historic character or have common characteristics of the area, Senior Planner Eric Barron said.
The building requirements in the design guidelines focused on the buildings containing common characteristics of the area, as well as encouraging property owners to rehabilitate exterior features and keep the historic nature of windows and doors.
For property owners wanting to make exterior changes to structures in a local historic district, the Historic Preservation Commission would review and approve or deny new construction or exterior modifications.
Barron said city staff had a neutral stance on the design guidelines.
Smith submitted the application in January, but city staff sent it back after it did not meet the requirement of having 75 percent of notarized signatures from property owners. The City Council agreed in March to sign the application as the property owner of 408 Lafayette St. to help the application reach the requirements, while at the same time agreeing to proceed with demolishing the property to avoid paying back more than $78,000 in federal funds the city invested in rehabilitating the property.
The Historic Preservation Commission denied the city's demolition permit application for 408 Lafayette St. Property owners can appeal the decision to the City Council, so the council may discuss the denied permit again. If the council overturns it, city staff will proceed with demolition and deed the property as green space.
The City Council approved a demolition moratorium for School, East McCarty and Lafayette streets last spring and lifted that moratorium in November.
Separate from the application, an economic development package that would include shops, restaurants and apartments is proposed for the same area, said Glover Brown, executive director of Friends of Lafayette Street and The Historic Foot District. He added he has been working on the project since May 2016.