Wake County

In this Raleigh neighborhood, there’s a struggle to balance history and progress

The historic Oberlin Cemetery dates to 1873.
The historic Oberlin Cemetery dates to 1873. ccampbell@newsobserver.com

From now on, property owners in Oberlin Village must get permission from the city before they build a large modern home or a backyard shed.

The Raleigh City Council on Tuesday agreed to designate Oberlin Village a historic overlay district to secure protections against development.

The change was cheered by advocates who want to preserve Oberlin Village, one of North Carolina’s most-intact Reconstruction-era black communities. The neighborhood was established by freed slaves after the Civil War, and some say it’s in danger of seeing more of the growth and redevelopment that is making its way from nearby Cameron Village.

“It’s time we decide between morals and money,” Sabrina Goode, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Oberlin Village, told City Council members. “We have the option to enrich the city of Raleigh, enrich the state of North Carolina or enrich a few select developers.”

But some people say the historic designation is unfair to owners of properties that don’t have strong ties to the original neighborhood. The 24-acre overlay district includes 47 sites, and 16 of them are considered “non-contributing” properties.

Those buildings were likely built outside the period of historical significance, which was from 1873 to 1970. They include InterAct, a nonprofit that provides domestic violence and sexual assault services, at least one business and homes built as recently as 2011.

The overlay district “places an undue burden on InterAct, a unique and indispensable nonprofit organization that is poised to do even greater things for the city of Raleigh and entire county of Wake ” said Leigh Duque, executive director of the group.

Drew Kirchner, who lives within the district on Van Dyke Avenue, said he bought a “trash-filled lot” seven years ago and built a house on it because of its proximity to historic structures.

“I do not wish to have an arbitrarily selected board tell me whether I can replace a bush in front of my yard that I planted in 2011,” he said. “I planted it.”

Kirchner said he supports efforts to preserve churches, Oberlin Cemetery, The Community Deli and the 2-acre site that housed Latta University starting in 1892.

“They are historic and they are very significant,” he said. “My house is not.”

When creating a historic overlay district, Raleigh starts at the core of the neighborhood and makes its way out until non-contributing structures outnumber the historic properties.

“The goal is to select boundaries that encompass an area containing the greatest concentration of contributing buildings and sites,” said city spokesman John Boyette. “Additionally, it is best planning and preservation practice for the boundaries to be contiguous.”

The change isn’t going to make everyone happy, but Raleigh must remember its history as it continues to grow, said City Council member Kay Crowder.

“There is only a few structures in our city and at this point in the state of North Carolina that have the kind of fabric and history that exist in this space,” she said. “I cannot find for any reason that we wouldn’t want to secure making sure that Oberlin Village stays a historic overlay.”

Moving forward, property owners in the district must receive a certificate of appropriateness from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission for major changes, including demolition, construction, new additions and modifications to the exterior of a building. Members of the commission are appointed by the City Council.

City staff can approve minor changes, like building a driveway, altering mailboxes and adding accessory structures with less than 144 square feet.

Friends of Oberlin Village asked the commission to look into the creation of an overlay district in late 2016. They started a petition and hosted neighborhood meetings. The Wade and Hillsborough citizens advisory councils and the Raleigh Planning Commission recommended approval of the district, which runs along Oberlin Road from Bedford Avenue to just south of Wade Avenue.

“The African-American community must be acknowledged as making significant contributions to the city of Raleigh and state, and this is your opportunity to acknowledge that,” Goode told the City Council Tuesday.