Numerous articles and letters to the editor have appeared in our local papers and on Facebook recently regarding the Bella Vino building. I hope this commentary will clear up several issues that are becoming confused in the discussions about the sale of the 22 W. Stimson Ave. property.
It is the duty of the Athens County Historical Society and Museum to attempt to preserve what we believe are historically significant properties. However, we are hampered by the absence of language in our city code to protect most historic buildings and sites in town. Thus numerous salvageable properties have been lost over the years. Would we love to save the Bella Vino building? Absolutely! That’s one of our responsibilities. However, the attempt to save the building led to other concerns that should be addressed and that have long-term impact on the entire city and go far beyond the original attempt to save the building.
For the record, it has never been the intent of — nor has it been endorsed or encouraged by — the ACHSM to suggest that Ms. Chandler-Glover should be persecuted for her absolute right to sell her own property to whomever she wishes. If anyone in the community thinks she or he is serving the cause by making Ms. Chandler-Glover suffer in any way, I ask each person who is doing so to cease immediately; it is unfair and does not help anyone. She has done nothing wrong. We at ACHSM may wish that Ms. Chandler-Glover had thought to contact us and give us an opportunity to help find a buyer who thinks in terms of preservation rather than razing buildings. But the thought may simply not have occurred to her, and she is not to blame for not doing so. Regardless, the issue has gone way beyond trying to save the building.
For anyone who thinks that Mr. Wasserman has done anything wrong by wanting to buy the building, I would also ask that person to realize that the ACHSM does not hold any personal hostility toward Mr. Wasserman whatsoever. Mr. Wasserman feels strongly that he should have the right to build the building he wishes, and if he comes to own the property, he will have every right to raze it if he so chooses. Though I would plead with him not to do so, he has the right regardless of what the ACHSM desires.
One criticism we have heard at the ACHSM is, “if you are so concerned, why don’t you buy the building?” I for one would love to have the money to buy up this and every other historic site in Athens County and protect them all. It is simply impossible for a nonprofit group to come up with the multimillion dollars such a venture would require. We encourage owners of such properties to be mindful of the value such properties have for all of us now and for future generations. We are happy to discuss possibilities for preservation with anyone interested.
The real issue here: The Planning Commission had the right to review Mr. Wasserman’s proposal, which was brought forth by John Paszke, our code enforcement officer. The commission also had the right to ignore the ACHSM’s plea for saving the building, since no current code deals with preservation of our historic structures. The Planning Commission, however, erred in granting Mr. Wasserman’s project by declaring essentially that parking spaces (required by city code) for tenants of a building somehow count as a business under the guidelines of a B-3 zone. The decision was made despite the advice of the law director’s office and was voted against by the mayor and safety-service director. If this decision stands, the city will be further degraded by developers who wish to interpret code to suit their own financial interests; in fact, I believe the decision means essentially there is no real distinction between residential and business districts.
The language of a B-3 zone in city code is clear: the first floor of a building must be a business. The city code clarifies that a B-3 zone may be used for “any convenience business or general business or services establishment subject to the following general conditions: (1) Residential uses are permitted only on the second story and above.”
The real issue now is what kind of a city we want to be, how much we care about our history, and to what extent we will allow our codes to be twisted beyond recognition. Everyone who loves this city has a stake in this issue.
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Ronald W. Luce is the executive director of the Athens County Historical Society and Museum.