AUGUSTA — Much of downtown Augusta has been named to the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that acknowledges numerous downtown buildings are considered worthy of preservation.

It opens up access to state and federal historic preservation tax credits that could pay for as much as 45 percent of renovation costs for eligible projects.

City and downtown leaders and historic preservationists said the designation brings economic opportunity on top of the recognition of the area’s historical integrity and significance.

“The biggest impact is going to be economic,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance. “It frees up huge amounts of tax credits for developers to come in and re-purpose these buildings. It’s exciting for the historical and cultural aspects, but also the big benefits economically.”

Developers doing renovations to one of the 51 buildings in the downtown area designated as “contributing” will be eligible for tax credits that could offset up to 45 percent of the cost of renovations, if the renovations are all done within historic preservation guidelines.

Mayor David Rollins said that should help building owners convert under-used upper floors of downtown buildings into apartments, a model which some building owners have already used, they’ve said, successfully.

“We’ve had people waiting, making sure that designation came through,” so they can do building redevelopment projects downtown, Rollins said. “I think the tax credits will be a big motivator. Everyone will be interested in that.”

The proposed district, according to a map of its boundaries, would include most, but not all buildings on both sides of Water Street in the downtown area from the building containing Shenanigans on the southern end to just before Laurel Street on the northern end. The district boundaries exclude the Key Plaza building, built in 1988, but encompass most of the rest of the downtown.

The draft map of the district was created by the city in 2000 as part of a previous stalled effort to have the area named to the historic register. Buildings within the district that are judged to not be contributing properties under historic standards would not be eligible for historic preservation tax credits.

Kirk Mohney, director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said in a news release the designation on the national register indicates the area has been documented, evaluated and considered worthy of preservation and protection as part of the nation’s cultural heritage.

The designated area, the Water Street Historic District, was deemed significant in the areas of commerce, industry, transportation, entertainment and recreation. Mohney said the intact remaining section of the historically dense commercial downtown area illustrates a common pattern of retail and commercial uses in first floor spaces with office, fraternal, hotel or residential spaces above and was a hub of entertainment and recreation facilities for the city.

The period of significance for architecture within the district is 1835 to 1957.

Architectural styles within the district include Greek revival, Italianate, Romanesque revival, beaux arts and colonial revival, according to Mohney, with examples of art deco and moderne style, as well.

The historical designation does not come with restrictions on what building owners may do to their buildings in the district unless they are using state or federal funds or tax credits to do so.

However, a proposed, but not yet adopted, new local historic district would come with some restrictions on what building owners could do to the exteriors of buildings that are visible from public areas. The local historic district ordinance would require building owners within the district to have many exterior building changes approved by a local review board to ensure renovations meet historic preservation standards.

However, those requirements are not part of the recently obtained listing of the downtown on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hall said very few downtowns have such a large number of buildings included as contributing properties to the district. He said that’s an indication the area has kept much of its historical integrity intact.

“It’s an extremely important step for the city of Augusta to be added to this list, a very special designation,” Hall said. “And another step toward revitalization.”

Rollins said the effort to have the downtown designated as historic and encourage its preservation has been going on for seven or eight years. He said the designation should be celebrated.

He also said the historic designation could help make Augusta more of a destination for travelers, especially those looking for historic places.

The downtown and other nearby parts of the city have “Museum in the Streets” signs placed at numerous spots, which contain photographs and information on historical sites. And Old Fort Western, a 1754 National Historic Landmark and museum, and the oldest surviving wooden French and Indian War fort in North America, is right across the Kennebec River.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

filed under: