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Arts district ATM irks commission

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After lengthy and deeply involved discussions that included a self-described “public shaming” Thursday, the El Dorado Historic District Commission approved two post-Certificates of Appropriateness applications.

One of the COAs pertained to signage and a decorative display for a children’s clothing store that recently relocated to the city’s commercial historic district, and the other involved the recent installation of a free-standing ATM within the district.

Prior to the start of the EHDC’s regular monthly meeting, Commissioner Parks Hammond expressed his displeasure at the ATM being set up on the corner of Jefferson and Cedar without prior approval from the historic district commission.

The ATM was installed on the site to accommodate the grand opening of the Murphy Arts District late last month.

When commissioners moved to the item on their agenda, Hammond gave officials from First Financial Bank a dressing-down about the matter.

“I’m very upset that this comes up after it was installed. Y’all have dealt with us before, and you should have been here before,” Hammond said. “We can’t punish you, other than publicly embarrassing you.”

“You’re setting a horrible precedent that says we can do whatever we want, whenever we want … I will not look very favorably on First Financial Bank in the future,” he continued.

COAs are required for any exterior alterations that would change the architectural and historic character of the city’s commercial historic district, which is roughly bordered by Locust, Cleveland, Oak and Jackson.

Prior to starting such work within the district, property and business owners are required to present a COA application to the EHDC detailing the scope of the project.

The commission reviews the application to make sure the project fits within the design guidelines of the commercial historic district.

Commissioners strongly discourage after-the-fact COAs. While proceeding with projects without a COA does not carry any punitive action from the commission, property owners can incur costs of having to redo a project if it does not adhere to design guidelines or pay fines levied by the city if the work violates city codes, commissioners said.

Elizabeth Eggleston, executive director of the EHDC, noted Thursday that when First Financial previously submitted a COA request, the work pertained to exterior components of a renovation project at its North Washington Avenue office.

Eggleston said she thought MAD had approached the bank with a request for the free-standing ATM.

“Being good corporate citizens, they responded in a quick and timely manner, and they may not have known because it did not have anything to do with a building,” Eggleston explained.

Stewart Wilson and Melissa Jerry — senior vice-president of operations and executive vice-president/chief financial officer, respectively, of First Financial — corroborated Eggleston’s statements.

Wilson said the timeframe for the ATM project was narrower than usual, noting that MAD selected the site and approved the design and colors of the ATM.

He also said that since MAD approached the bank about the project, First Financial officials thought MAD was handling applicable requirements, including submitting a COA.

“If we had known we were responsible for this project, we would have come before y’all,” Wilson said. “It was a pretty quick turnaround. We were just trying to support the district and support the area.”

Eggleston said that as soon as bank officials learned about the issue, they responded accordingly.

“First Financial is a wonderful corporate citizen, and we do everything we can, when we can, to help the community,” Jerry said.

Commissioner Teresa Golliher said MAD should have come before the commission prior to setting up the ATM.

“I will have words with MAD,” Hammond said.

A sign and a picket fence

Commissioners narrowly approved a post-COA that was submitted by children’s clothing store Coco’z Cottage, which recently relocated from North College to 108 N. Washington.

Eggleston said a post-COA was turned in on Sept. 21 for signage and a decorative picket fence that had already been installed.

Owner Jennifer McNabb and her husband Jeff McNabb explained that a walk-through of Downtown El Dorado inspired the idea to hang the business’s sign underneath the awning on the storefront. Horizontal signs adorn the front entrances of several downtown businesses.

“They’re really too low. No one ever came for a COA, and I don’t know who paid for or installed the signs,’ Eggleston said.

The sign for Coco’z Cottage displays the business’s name, while the others identify the type of business that operates inside.

The other signs were hung years ago upon a recommendation by destination developer Roger Brooks, who drafted the action plan that led to the “Festival City” branding idea for El Dorado.

On Thursday, historic district commissioners homed in on the height of the Coco’z sign, noting that design guidelines for the commercial historic district call for protruding signs to hang at least eight feet above the sidewalk.

Acknowledging that he was being “overly cautious,” Hammond said he objected to the sign because it did not meet the height requirement.

“We’d have to talk to the city attorney, but by approving exceptions to the guidelines, we may be taking on liability because it’s too low," Hammond said.

“I’m (6 feet, 4 inches), and I haven’t had any problems,” Jeff McNabb said.

“There are several signs that have existed downtown like that for years, and if we ask her to make her sign higher, we’ll have to ask the others,” Golliher said.

Local architect Michael Rogers, who formerly served as chairman of the EHDC, said requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act call for signs to be placed at least 6 feet, 8 inches off the ground.

Jennifer McNabb pointed out that the Coco’z sign is higher than the awning.

Commissioner John Benson Jr. noted that Hammond referenced design guidelines for protruding signs, adding that the Coco’z sign hangs from the storefront awning and is not attached to the building.

The commission eventually approved the COA, which allowed for an exception that places liability on Coco’z and does not set a precedent.

The picket fence component was approved with a vote of 2 - 1, with Hammond voting no and Golliher abstaining.

Benson and Commissioner Jon Robbins voted in favor of the decor, with Benson citing the design guideline that allows for contemporary designs. Hammond initial y motioned to oppose the fence, but failed due to the lack of a second.

Hammond said he felt the fence conflicts with the overall architectural design of the building and gives the false appearance of “historic character.”

He proposed an option of setting up the appliqué as artwork inside the building.

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@eldoradonews.com.

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