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Alliance finds enforcement key to saving Beckley historical district

ELKINS, W.Va. — Beckley officials should follow established laws to
save their city’s endangered downtown historic district, according to
an assessment released Wednesday by the Preservation Alliance of West
Virginia.

Though alterations have harmed the integrity of the district, the
assessment identified multiple recommendations that should help
protect its federal status and financing for future development,
according to Danielle LaPresta Parker, executive director of the alliance.

The 27-page assessment performed by alliance staff over the last five
months included a building-by-building review of the district and a
review of the codes, bylaws and guidelines that govern the Beckley
Historic Landmarks Commission, the architectural board established to
manage its development.

The alliance initiated the assessment after the downtown area was added to
the West Virginia Endangered Properties List, Parker said.  The
declaration was the first in which the alliance had included an entire
national historic district, she said.

The declaration came after the State Historic Preservation Office
warned that mounting alterations could trigger the district’s removal
from the National Register of Historic Places — a warning that had
been issued with growing intensity since alterations and demolitions
began to occur in the late 1990s.

Thankfully, Parker said, the assessment found that city laws were in keeping with state enabling legislation and the standards set forth by the U.S. Department of the Interior and that adjustments to current
laws would not be necessary.

“There are no gray areas here, and saving the district will probably
require only that the landmarks commission follow its laws and seek
expert counsel when faced with questions,” she said.

As in many historic districts nationwide, alterations to building
exteriors and public spaces such as those in downtown Beckley must be
approved by a landmarks commission and provided a certificate of appropriateness.

Buildings in the downtown, many of which were constructed in the 1920s
and 1930s, are to be returned to their original appearances, according
to municipal laws enacted in the 1990s when the national historic
district was established.

“The team found that many awning, windows and storefronts had been
replaced or altered, and that many stone and brick facades had been
painted or covered,” Parker said.

“In some cases the facades of whole buildings had been replaced with
entirely non-historical facades, which have been significantly
detrimental to the integrity of the district.”

The assessment also includes case studies of practices in other
historic districts in West Virginia and suggestions for preservation
practices relevant to the architectural problems in the district.

The alliance recommends that downtown property owners organized
through the Downtown Beckley Business Association work toward engaging the National Main Street Center in its effort to revitalize the
district.

“Other cities across the U.S. have accomplished this, and we see no
reason why Beckley officials cannot through due diligence achieve the
same excellence.”

The assessment includes information relevant to tax credits,
preservation tips and eco-friendly rehabilitation practices of which
property owners should be aware.

Parker said the alliance would especially like to thank Preserve West
Virginia AmeriCorps’ Nicole Marrocco for her efforts preparing the
assessment. Marrocco’s position is made possible through an AmeriCorps
state grant administered by Volunteer West Virginia and the
Corporation for National and Community Service.

The alliance would also like to thank the Downtown Beckley Business
Association for requesting the assessment, she said, and the West
Virginia State Historic Preservation Office for providing input
regarding the report.

Copies of the assessment are available on line at pawv.org.

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