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LR touts district's historic status

Tax incentives promoted to revive Dunbar neighborhood

By Aziza Musa

This article was published August 6, 2014 at 4:48 a.m.


Missy McSwain, director of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, speaks Tuesday about the advantages to property owners and residents who live in Little Rock’s Paul Laurence Dunbar School Neighborhood Historic District.

Little Rock officials encouraged residents and property owners in the city's Paul Laurence Dunbar School Neighborhood Historic District on Tuesday to take advantage of tax incentives to revive the area.

The district, which was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 27, is bound by Wright Avenue to the north, South Chester Street to the east, South Ringo Street to the west and West 24th Street to the south. It has 88 properties, plus another four that were already listed in the national registry.

"Among other things, the preservation ... attracts new residents and investments and encourages neighborhood pride," said Rhea Roberts, executive director of the Quapaw Quarter Association, during a news conference. "This listing is the result of several years of hard work by several members in the community."

For the community, the historic status could mean development and replenishment, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said. It will help the community revive, empower people in the neighborhood, stabilize home prices, and add to the architectural and historical character of the neighborhood, he said.

Those who wish to fix up income-producing properties, such as rentals or commercial spaces, can claim up to $125,000 in state tax credits per project. Private-property owners can claim up to $25,000 per project. For both, owners have to invest at least $25,000 to claim the tax credits. Income-producing properties are also eligible for a 20 percent federal tax credit.

The listing last year came after nearly two decades of preservation efforts for the neighborhood.

The process began in 1993, when the association encouraged the city to apply for a certified local government grant to complete a survey of the Dunbar neighborhood. The city received a report with historical information about "a number of buildings" in the area, Roberts said.

About five years later, the city used another grant to fund the nomination of 10 homes in the neighborhood. Seven homes were listed in the National Register, and two were listed in the state register.

In 2004, resident and Little Rock School District teacher Susan Bell organized an architectural survey workshop for teachers. It was three years later that the survey gained some traction, when the city issued a request for qualifications to find a consultant for the survey.

In 2011, the city hired a consultant for the job and completed the survey of the neighborhood. The next year, that consultant helped prepare the nomination for the district.

The district includes the Dunbar School -- one of the 5,000 schools Julius Rosenwald opened for black people in the South. The school was originally a junior-senior high school with education and trade classes, but it had a wing for the Dunbar Junior College.

Little Rock neighborhood leader Annie Abrams said Tuesday that she arrived to live with her cousin -- just down the street from the school -- so she could attend what was considered the best school for black people.

"It was huge," she said. "It was like seeing the Empire State Building" from the cousin's home.

The registry listing is about honoring and representing the past, taking care of the present and securing a future, she said.

Stodola said he was glad the "odyssey" of getting the district listed came to fruition.

"It's part of our legacy. It's part of our heritage, and it's part of our rich, rich heritage," he said.

It is one of only a few Little Rock historic districts listed on the national registry that focuses mainly on the contributions of a black neighborhood to the history of the capital city, Arkansas Historic Preservation Program Director Missy McSwain said.

The neighborhood went from working and middle class to a predominately black middle class in the 1960s, she said. The architectural styles of the buildings -- showing how the area was developed to meet the needs of the community -- is important in telling that story, she said.

Dr. Archie Hearne, whose practice is near the area, said he hopes the historic designation can put "more energy into improving neighborhoods in downtown areas," including Dunbar, which he said was a community "that had been pretty much put on the back burner."

He said he is pleased with the historic status and incentives because of the potential opportunities.

"What you hope is that the people in the community have the interest to stay in the community and make things grow," he said.

Metro on 08/06/2014

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