Tonight, planning professionals will return to Oxford to get a second round of citizen input on the update of the city’s comprehensive plan and to present municipal officials with some preliminary findings and recommendations. <>
The current effort aims to build on and adjust the previous long-range planning process, Vision 2020, and has an eye fixed on the city’s bicentennial – thus the name Vision 2037.
In late March and early April, people with backgrounds in architecture, law, economics and a host of other planning-related professions shepherded both a general public forum and several focus groups to glean from Oxford-area citizens and stakeholders what statistics, maps and inventories could not tell.
In this series, the Oxford Citizen has reviewed stakeholder responses from each of the focus groups – mobility/transportation, environment, growth/land use, housing and local economy. Today’s article visits the last one – “Old Oxford”/preservation/neighborhoods.
Phil Walker, a planning generalist based in Nashville, Tennessee, led the group. One of his first observations was of the oddity of Oxford’s two historic commissions.
“I think it makes perfect sense,” said Brian Hyneman, a member of the Historic Preservation Commission, which oversees four residential preservation districts. “The issues are completely different. I think theirs are more signage. It’s rare to have someone want to build out on the Square.”
City Planner Andre Correll told civic and business leaders on April 8 that the community’s “biggest jewel, besides the University of Mississippi, is our Courthouse Square and historic neighborhoods” and that “our historic commissions are doing a great job.” She said, however, that there are other areas not as old as the neighborhoods near the Square that nevertheless merit forming preservation districts.
Former Mayor Richard Howorth, who chairs the Vision 2037 advisory committee, suggested that historically black Freedmen Town and post-WWII development Avent Acres are good candidates for preservation.
“What most people worry about (regarding Freedmen Town) is that it’s being gentrified,” he said.
“In another 10 or 15 years, Freedmen Town is going to be gone,” added James Ivy.
Historic Preservation Commission member Judy Riddell said neighborhoods don’t have to have only same-era structures.
“If there is a house burned down or lost somehow, it’s OK to have a modern house,” she said. “You’re not trying to create a museum. I wouldn’t want to say that everything that’s built in Avent Acres must be just so big and look like it was built right after World War II.”
Still, several people said the demise of older houses – either by intention or neglect – has been a problem in keeping the character of Old Oxford intact.
“Demolition is too easy,” said one participant. “If you buy an old house that doesn’t meet your needs, you just figure out a way to get it demolished.” Assistant City Planner Katrina Hourin confirmed that 62 demolitions have taken place since Oxford’s historic survey was done in 2000.
Walker suggested a compromise that might work for areas where the neighborhood itself is more clearly historic than individual homes.
“A lot of communities have some conservation districts and some historic districts,” he said. “Conservation districts are ‘historic zoning lite.’”
Properties owner Mike Overstreet, who serves on the Courthouse Square Preservation Commission, said part of the history worth preserving is that within living memory.
“I like progress, but I also want to preserve what Oxford was sort of like when I grew up here in the 1960s,” he said.
Another man cautioned against too much preservation, noting that Oxford’s vibrancy is as important as its quaintness.
“If you really want to see what that was like, go to Holly Springs tonight and see what’s happening on the Square at eight o’clock,” he said.