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Architect About Town

Architecture: Historic designation process explained

Architect About Town - Special to the Fort Myers News-Press

At the 2010 Annual Statewide Preservation Conference of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation in Fort Myers in May, I joined two preservationists from the east coast to present a seminar on creating historic districts.

But just what does all this preservation jargon mean? What are the designations and what do they mean for the owner of a historic building?
I went to Jared Beck, principal planner for Fort Myers, and asked questions. He took me through the programs and the opportunities.

Q: What does designation mean in the city of Fort Myers? Does it differ from national designation?

A: A local designation, district or individual, allows a property or neighborhood to be formally recognized by the city for its historic significance, enabling property owner(s) to work with city staff to make design decisions that respect the historic nature of their property. National designation is similar, but a more rigorous process and far more prestigious.

Q: What is a neighborhood designation?

A: Known as a “district,” it is a concentration of historic structures within a concentrated area, such as Downtown or Dean, Edison and Seminole parks.

Q: How are important buildings or neighborhoods chosen?

A: The reasons vary. A key component is age. However, they are typically selected for their architectural significance and historical importance. If someone of great local or national influence occupied the structure, or if it was the site of a significant historical event or activity, it can be considered.

Q: What are the benefits of designation?

A: There is a great range of benefits:

Financially the city offers the ad valorem tax exemption for both commercial and residential properties when a significant investment is made.

A great sense of community and place is created when an assurance that the character and charm of a neighborhood can be maintained. Therefore properties within designated districts sustain higher property values and often sell more quickly even in a recessed market.

There are financial benefits for the city and state too. Preservation and its related activities is a $4.2 billion revenue generator for the state annually. It stimulates job creation for skilled labor, promotes heritage tourism and increases property value.

Q: What are the restrictions of a designation?

A: Outside of downtown, very few restrictions exist beyond the land development code.

The program is not designed to be restrictive. Instead it provides a mechanism for owners to work with city staff to assist with design decisions to help maintain the historic character of a property and/or neighborhood. Designation does not require approval for routine repair, maintenance or in-kind replacement. And there are no color restrictions of any material, including paint. 

Approval is required only if there is a change in materials. And even then, staff recognizes that an owner’s needs will change over time and are flexible about recommendations and decisions.

Q: Can you explain the recently adopted “administrative approval process”

A: This new mechanism, which will be a great benefit to property owners within established districts, allows staff to approve many routine alterations without the need to go to committee.

Q: Will you be looking to designate other neighborhoods?

A: Yes, but we are still in the early stages of the program. There are four exceptional districts already in place. With the greatest concentration of historic structures in Southwest Florida within the city limits, in particular, those neighborhoods along the McGregor corridor, there is potential for a number of additional districts in the future.

Q: Dean Park is an interesting example of a district. How can neighborhood designation tie in with revitalizing an area?

A: Great example. Dean Park had been in decline and faced many challenges prior to designation. As a result of achieving historic designation and by working together with the city, Lee Trust and others, the neighborhood has experienced a renaissance. It is currently in the process of pursuing a National Designation.

Q: What role did the preservation program play in downtown?

A: The program, combined with the city’s tax exemption, allowed the city to work with and incentivize the property owners to research, document, gain approvals, and ultimately restore and rehabilitate nearly all of the historic structures within the district. Today, these efforts combined with the completion of the new streetscape, has made the City of Fort Myers a real gem in Southwest Florida.

Q: Is the list limited to only buildings or neighborhoods?

A: No, in fact, the Tootie McGregor Terry Memorial Fountain on the front lawn of the Fort Myers Country Club and McGregor Boulevard are both locally designated.

Q: Lee Trust for Historic Preservation is also an advocate of preservation. What is their mission?

A: It is the largest nonprofit preservation organization in Southwest Florida and has been a tremendous ally for preservation not only in the city but also throughout Lee County.

Q: Do you get a plaque?

A: The city does not provide a plaque, however The Lee Trust does for individual buildings. For neighborhoods, the Trust is able to work with property owners and various grant sources to pursue installation of plaques.

Joyce Owens AIA RIBA