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Historic district expansion plan moves forward

The City of Grants Pass is moving forward with expanding the downtown Historic District from two blocks to about 15, standardizing the historic look and streamlining exterior remodel approvals. 

"At this point, City Council and the Historical Commission want to protect the core of the downtown area," said Lora Glover, the city's Parks & Community Development director. "It (the boundaries) will be closer to matching the central business district."

The city has already filed the amendment to the law, the first step in the expansion project, which the Urban Area Planning Commission will review on Jan. 13 before it goes in front of the council. However, a couple of building and business owners in the expansion zone expressed concern about the changes.

The current historic district, set up in 1993 with help from historic preservation consultant George Kramer, encompasses the two blocks between G and H streets from Fourth to Sixth streets. Kramer is the consultant working with the city on the expansion zone now, too.

The proposed expansion runs down Sixth Street from D Street to J Street, and from east to west including buildings along Fourth Street to Seventh Street. If passed, the new proposal will expand the Historic District five times over.

It's a three-step process. First the City must amend some wording in the code, simplifying the review process of approving signs, paint and exterior remodels. Second, inventory for historic buildings needs to be updated. Lastly, the area needs to be filed with the Oregon National Register of Historic Places.

The update, if accepted, will streamline the process of requesting approval for paint, signs and exteriors. Currently, all proposals go through the Historical Buildings & Sites Commission for approval — a process that can take up to six weeks. Under the new law people would be able to come in and meet set standards, and then it can be the director's decision to quickly approve their requests.

"We don't want to slow people down," Glover said.

Although current facades of buildings in the expanded zone will be grandfathered in, the next time they are remodeled they will have to meet the guidelines the Historical Commission will put in place.

Still in draft form, the standards include choices of two to three colors from a soft-tone paint palette with brighter trims allowed.

Stucco is a no-no, as is river rock, metal siding or metal roofing. Signs should not be electric, LED or backlit (although neon is OK), and sign placement should not be on rooftops, skylines or on the fronts of buildings — only on the facades or awnings.

Speaking of awnings, they should be canvas, not vinyl or metal. Requests for materials outside the guidelines will likely be subject to discretionary review by the Historical Buildings Commission. Mainly, city officials want to make sure buildings fit in with the historic look of downtown Grants Pass.

During an open house in June on the proposed expansion, advocates said the expanded district could attract tourists and preserve downtown's historic look.

Critics said restrictions on exteriors could turn out to be expensive or decrease property value. They said they want to see the city offer incentives to businesses and building owners, rather than mandates.

The city has offered limited federal grants for upgrading and renovating buildings, as well as tax breaks to help the area meet the standards during future remodeling projects, although that funding hasn't yet been secured for next year.

Some businesses included in the district might be eligible to have property taxes frozen for up to 15 years, if the buildings meet certain requirements. The city is also discussing drawing up a new walking-route storybook map.

Some structures inside the expansion zone are newer and don't fit into the historic theme, such as the Town Center Plaza on G Street, the Wells Fargo Bank building at Sixth and F streets and the Daily Courier.

However, the expansion zone will also include many iconic buildings, such as the post office, Redwood Tower, Eagles Lodge, the Rogue Theater, First Christian Church and Calvary Chapel Church — all built between 1900 and 1940.

The proposed map is still in draft form, according to city staff.

The Planning Commission is scheduled to review the amended law, which has already been filed, on Jan 13. The Council will review, approve or reject the amendment on Feb 17.