by Max Brantley
I wrote recently about the demolition of the former Massery Cleaners at 7th and Cross by the Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services, a city agency, for future expansion of its nearby headquarters. MEMS said it couldn't salvage the structure, though it's listed as a contributing building in the West Seventh Street Historic District (parts of blocks between State and Cross), because of its disrepair and because of cleaning chemicals that pollute the site. It would have been too expensive to clean up the chemicals sufficiently to allow preservation of the structure, MEMS said. A parking lot will take its place.
This decision could have farther-reaching effects. Vanessa Norton McKuin, executive director of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas explains:
In order for a district to qualify for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, at least 50% of the sites within the boundaries have to be "contributing," which means, simply, the structures on the sites fit within the period of significance and they retain historic integrity. The demolition of the Massery's Cleaners building reduces the percentage of contributing structures in the West 7th Street Historic District boundaries to right at 50%. In order for the district to go away it has to be formally de-listed by the National Park Service, which is a process that can take a
little time. The demolition does very much jeopardize the historic district and de-listing would take away an important redevelopment incentive that property owners and developers have to invest in that district—the Historic Tax Credit.
She adds that the issue is complicated. The 50 percent level is required, and still barely met, but McKuin said the Park Service prefers a clear margin of over 50 percent. Also, there's a question of whether a couple of addresses account for more than two structures. But there's no doubt a danger point is near.
Both state and federal tax credits are available for such work. Also, a brownfields fund could provide some assistance on remediating environmental problems. It's being used on at least one Main Street project. McKuin said she believes one tax credit project is underway in the district, for repairs to the Weekend Theater building.
Here's a detailed listing of structures in the 7th Street District. the Massery Laundry Company was built around 1925, a typical commercial design of the era.