Redevelopment plans in Burns Bottom are on hold, as the neighborhood’s future is now directly tied to the value the state will assign to its past.
Columbus Redevelopment Authority has asked the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to survey properties along a five block stretch of the neighborhood near downtown Columbus — between North Third and Fourth streets that run north-to-south between Second and Seventh avenues — to see if any properties should be designated as Mississippi landmarks protected by the state antiquities law.
That placed an at least temporary stay on any demolition in the neighborhood, including six vacant houses Columbus City Council had agreed in March to tear down. One of those six, a rundown and long vacant two-story home at 406 Third St. N., was built sometime before 1850 and was once owned by the family for whom the neighborhood is named.
The application also brought CRA into compliance with state law, since the entire Burns Bottom neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic places.
“I’d say the Burns House is the key property we’ll be looking at for landmark status, but it likely won’t be the only one,” said MDAH deputy historic preservation officer Ken P’Pool. “A number of properties in that neighborhood have been identified as having historic value.”
The timeline on MDAH officially designating landmarks at Burns Bottom is unclear, P’Pool said, adding, “it shouldn’t drag out terribly long.”
Redevelopment in jeopardy
CRA, which the city council created in 2015 to lead certain revitalization efforts in Columbus, planned to purchase roughly 70 properties in Burns Bottom then prepare and market the site for private residential development. Most of the lots in the area are either vacant or include dilapidated or inadequate housing structures, some of which have long been unoccupied.
A private development, according to CRA officials, would bring higher-quality housing that would raise property values in the city.
So far, CRA has purchased almost 30 lots in the project area. The city also has issued $3.2 million in bonds, backed by a special ad valorem tax, which will fund property acquisition, structure demolition and infrastructure improvements for the project.
But the number of properties MDAH deems state landmarks could greatly alter the scope, or even the possibility, of redevelopment in Burns Bottom, said Jeff Turnage, attorney for both the city and CRA.
“We’re going to keep buying up property as we can on the assumption that MDAH will treat us fairly,” Turnage said. “They may tell us a few have to stay and be a part of the redevelopment. If they say they all have to stay, then we’re dead in the water. We’re not going to rehab all of those houses and I don’t think there will be a developer who will buy them all and fix them up.
“I think it could affect developer interest if even just certain houses have to stay,” he added.
Burns Bottom, though listed on the national register, is not part of a city-designated historic district. However, P’Pool previously told The Dispatch the state antiquities law requires public entities, such as CRA, that own historic property or property in nationally recognized historic districts to follow certain procedures before demolishing structures or redeveloping an area. Those include, he said, first notifying MDAH and allowing a landmarks survey — something CRA had not done before tapping the first six properties, including the Burns House, for demolition.
Turnage said he completed extensive title and land record searches for each property before CRA requested demolition and did not find any indication any of the properties had historic significance.
The Dispatch, for a previous article, confirmed Burns Bottom is on the national register through documents found at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.
“My scope of title work never includes going to the public library,” Turnage said. “Maybe it should. But I do think MDAH should include historic designations in actual land records.”
What is a state landmark?
A property with state landmark status requires a MDAH permit before it can be renovated or demolished, P’Pool said.
The goal is to encourage preservation, he said, but it is not unheard of for MDAH to allow a landmark to be destroyed.
One recent example was allowing the old gymnasium at Hinds Community College in Raymond to be demolished after it was struck by lightning. The building was so badly damaged, P’Pool said, that MDAH deemed it unfeasible to repair.
“It’s very rare, and there usually has to be an extraordinary circumstance,” P’Pool said. “It’s not something we take lightly.”
Interest in the Burns House
At least one citizen has approached the CRA about possibly purchasing and fixing the Burns House.
Bob Raymond, an instructor at Mississippi University for Women who lives at The Cedars antebellum home on Military Road, asked CRA board members in late March if they would consider allowing him to buy the badly dilapidated Burns home and restore it. He’s been involved with several historic home restorations in Columbus, he said, and helped add a home located near Columbus Air Force Base to the national register.
Raymond said he thinks CRA is receptive to the idea, but Turnage said the board would wait for MDAH to complete its evaluation of the neighborhood before moving forward.
Still, Turnage is concerned about possible consequences for CRA selling individual properties back to private citizens.
“What I’m fearful of is there won’t be many people willing to buy them and restore them,” he said. “Another danger — and this certainly isn’t aimed at Mr. Raymond or any specific person — is that an individual buyer with good intentions would start the restoration project and not complete it. By then, we’ve already sold the property.”
CRA purchased the Burns House from the estate of William G. Cannon III estate for $28,000, which Turnage said was consistent with the property’s appraised value.
Raymond said it would take at least $200,000 to restore it. On the high end, he said, it could cost millions.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.