Brenda Dunn lives in a house that was built in 1949 on Greenwood Alley in Bowling Green, in what was once a thriving African American neighborhood.
Some see the house – which has seen few significant improvements in recent years – as a historic home worth preservation. Others consider it an eyesore not worth the effort to renovate.
For now, at least, Dunn simply calls it home. But that may soon change, since the house she has rented for two years – along with six other adjacent houses – is slated to be demolished to make way for commercial space for contractors.
A debate about the fate of the homes now involves the local chapter of the NAACP, which issued a statement Friday saying it is “looking into this matter.”
At the Nov. 19 meeting of the Bowling Green City Commission, a rezoning request that would pave the way for the demolition of Dunn’s home and the surrounding houses on Greenwood Alley and Kenton Street sparked a lengthy discussion about historic preservation and affordable housing issues. The request – to change the area from two-family residential to general business – was approved by a 2-1 margin, with Commissioner Dana Beasley-Brown voting against the request and Commissioner Sue Parrigin and Mayor Bruce Wilkerson voting yes.
Just two weeks earlier, though, the commission voted 3-2 against the rezoning in a non-binding vote. Two things changed between the two commission meetings, both involving commissioners who had voted against the rezoning:
On Nov. 19, Commissioner Joe Denning recused himself, citing a conflict of interest because his daughter had spoken against the rezoning at a City-County Planning Commission of Warren County meeting. Additionally, Commissioner Brian “Slim” Nash was absent Nov. 19, since he is serving a four-week suspension after being found to have violated the city’s code of ethics stemming from his arrest in May for public intoxication.
Beasley-Brown said last week that the area “was important to the African American community, and is also important to the community as a whole.” She made a motion at the Nov. 19 meeting to table the rezoning request to allow more public input, but the motion died for lack of a second.
Beasley-Brown said members of the community should help shape such zoning decisions. She also said the city is facing a “crisis” in a lack of affordable housing, and getting rid of any affordable housing stock makes the problem worse.
She said she heard from one former resident of one of the homes in question who was able to walk to get groceries from that house, but now lives in a “food desert.” She said displacing residents can “have a profound impact” on people’s lives.
“It’s not just about the land,” she said.
Parrigin said part of what guided her vote was that “it was a unanimous recommendation from the planning commission. ... They are very conscientious about their job.”
The planning commission considered the rezoning request at its meeting Sept. 19 and voted 8-0 to recommend approval. The city commission has the final say on rezonings within the city limits.
Parrigin said she visited the area before the commission vote and saw “houses not being lived in and in disrepair.”
As for the need for more affordable housing, “we have a deficit in all categories (of housing) ... developers are really working hard to meet the needs in all the sectors,” she said.
The planning commission considers a variety of criteria when deciding on a rezoning request, including whether homes slated to be demolished are historically significant.
All of the houses in question were built in the 1940s, with the exception of a house on Greenwood Alley that was built in 1914.
City-County Planning Commission Executive Director Ben Peterson said his staff report contains such information because “a goal of the (county’s) comprehensive plan is to potentially preserve historic structures.”
The planning commission uses guidelines issued by the federal Department of Interior to determine potential historic significance.
Those guidelines look at whether a structure is 50 years old or older or if it is significant because of an event or person associated with it – for example, “did George Washington sleep there?” Peterson said.
Finally, the guidelines ask if a structure is “an example of architectural significance” that would be lost if demolished, Peterson said.
Of those guidelines, the houses only appear to fit the criteria of being more than 50 years old, although Peterson noted that it could be argued that there is historical significance in that this has been a historically African American neighborhood in the city.
One other such neighborhood, known as Jonesville, was infamously demolished in the 1960s for an expansion of Western Kentucky University. Although lesser known than Shake Rag or Jonesville, the area around Kenton Street and Greenwood Alley was the site of a tight-knit African American community for decades.
When it comes to the affordable housing issue, “at a time when rents are going up, you are taking away some of that affordable housing stock,” Peterson said. But a property owner has to determine “whether the homes are worth rehabilitating. It’s a tough decision ... the decision-makers have to weigh all those angles.”
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Of the seven homes slated for demolition, two are still occupied.
Dunn is 57 and on disability. She said she pays $300 a month to rent her small two-bedroom home, and her main concern is being able to “find another place that I can afford.”
The other remaining resident, Anthony Murrell, 63, has similar concerns.
“It would be hard for me to move,” he said. He is also on disability.
“I don’t get much,” he said, and after paying rent, he barely has enough to pay utilities.
“I live month to month. What am I going to do? The majority of people with money want to get rid of these houses because it’s an eyesore for them,” he said.
Murrell said he wonders why the homes could not be renovated instead of torn down.
But the project developer and property owner, Chris Robertson, said the houses in question “are so old and falling apart, they are not worth saving. Nothing about them is historic. ... They are so dilapidated you can’t remodel them.”
He bought the properties in 2017 and 2018 with an eye on tearing them down for development, perhaps as apartments, but the cost of purchasing the land made building apartments prohibitive.
Warren County Assessor’s Office records show that Robertson’s CSR BG Investments purchased the properties in 2017 and 2018 for between $37,500 and $45,000 each.
The value is in the land in the heart of Bowling Green, not in the small houses on them, he said.
All the houses were occupied when Robertson purchased them, but as tenants moved out, he did not re-rent them in anticipation of their removal.
Robertson said the plan for the land, a little more than one acre, is to build office and storage space for contractors, who will also be able to park work vehicles in attached garages.
He said the project will improve the area and increase the city’s tax base. The development plan calls for the building to have a stone and brick facade with a 6-foot vinyl fence around the perimeter.
Robertson said he is not unsympathetic to a need for more affordable housing. He said he has not given his remaining tenants a deadline to vacate, and with “still a lot to do” on the project, demolition work would probably not start until next summer.
The debate about historical significance does not resonate with Murrell, who spoke unsuccessfully against the rezoning at the September planning commission meeting. Nor does he consider it a contest between himself and local government.
“The city is going to do what it wants to,” he said. “There’s no fighting a battle. The battle I’m fighting is finding a place to live.”