New legislation threaten the future of Michigan’s local historic districts

Michigan’s local historic districts are the best way for communities to manage and protect the integrity, beauty, and value of their neighborhoods. Property owners know that the time and money spent improving their properties will be matched with similar efforts on surrounding lots.

Studies have further indicated that because rehabilitation projects tend to favor local labor and materials, each dollar spent on a rehabilitation project continues to circulate in the local economy five to seven times, as opposed to new construction which circulates only three times. Recently introduced House Bill 5232 and Senate Bill 720 clearly threaten the validity of Michigan’s local historic districts.

Rather than freezing neighborhoods in time, preservation laws such as PA 169 of 1970 enable residents to have input on the direction of development in their community, deciding which historic elements are important to highlight and maintain as an area evolves over time. Former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros described historic preservation as a crucial “asset-based comprehensive community building” strategy, simultaneously increasing investment opportunity and neighborhood stability. It’s no wonder that 78 communities in Michigan have chosen to enact ordinances to protect their historic assets through local historic districts.

As for success stories, look no further than the Heartside Historic District near downtown Grand Rapids, where new construction and renovation projects are further testaments to the success of preservation as an economic catalyst.

Historically one of the most distressed sections of the city, 20 years ago Heartside struggled with boarded empty storefronts and street crime. The establishment of a local historic district helped ward off a knee-jerk reaction to bulldoze blighted structures and install surface parking lots, and city officials instead created a building re-use incentive program to provide developers with grants up to $50,000 to help defray renovation costs.

Today the historic district is renowned for its concentrated arts and cultural scene, becoming a destination for specialty shopping and dining. Dwelling Place, a local affordable housing nonprofit that manages the popular Avenue for the Arts program, estimates that Heartside has experienced a 20 to 30 percent increase in population since 2000, further contributing to the vitality, desirability and overall health of the city.

More recently, the City of Owosso established the Owosso Downtown Historic District in 2010, and within two weeks major facade work began on five historic buildings. Utilizing historic preservation tax incentives available through the city’s National Register district listing and the favorable real estate environment associated with local historic districts, more than $10 million in revitalization projects are slated for development in Owosso in the next two years.

In addition to sparking neighborhood revitalization efforts, local historic districts play an important role in articulating community aesthetics, creating a sense of place and cohesiveness. For historic district commissions, a proposed project’s compatibility with neighboring buildings and streetscape is key to its success, rather than just looking at individual building characteristics.

The Old West Side Historic District in Ann Arbor, one of the first local historic districts to be designated and currently renowned for its distinctive streetscape and overall atmosphere, was established in 1978 in response to a neighborhood group seeking to prevent apartment buildings being built on the sites of demolished historic homes.

Creating a local historic district ensures a thoughtful and participatory design review process that helps diversify building stock while respecting the historic character that makes the neighborhood so appealing.

For example, the Mark condominiums, currently under construction in the Old West Side, are being built on the site of a former car wash. The original proposed design used less brick and was set closer to the street than the adjacent historic buildings. After the historic district commission review process, the revised design is almost entirely brick and the setback now matches that of the site’s original house. The result is a new building that is compatible with its surroundings and respectful to its historic neighbors while offering a new housing option in a very desirable neighborhood.

Brush Park Historic District in Detroit recently faced a unique design challenge, as so little of its historic building stock currently exists to serve as a reference point for a proposed 400-unit housing development plan that utilizes 8.4-acres of primarily vacant land. Again, multiple conversations with community stakeholders, the city planning department and historic district commission eventually yielded a highly regarded “abstractly contextual” design that honors surrounding city fabric while also showcasing contemporary construction methodology.

Local historic districts positively contribute to resilient, stable, and thriving communities by leveraging public and private capital and safeguarding the rights of multiple property owners in the neighborhood. Proposed HB 5232 and SB 720 threaten the validity of local historic districts in Michigan. These bills are shortsighted, ill-advised, and should not be allowed to jeopardize a critical, cost-effective tool used by municipalities for nearly 50 years to implement historic preservation as community economic development.

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Stephen Cain
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 9:42am
I'm a long-time fan of historic districts, have a house and a condo in a converted factory in Ann Arbor's Old West Side and have seen the benefits in other communities. I'm also aware that the application of preservation rules can also be bureaucratic but didn't think that was a sufficient problem to overhaul the statutes. Can anyone post an explanation of the politics behind the proposed changes?
Kim Hunter
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 10:05am
The politics of the new bills is greed. Developers have given money to elected officials, and lets be frank and clear here, Republicans, to repeal local control and allow developers to come in and do what they want with no regard to the historic character of any proposed area. It's not about economic development for the community. As noted in this article and countless studies, historical designation is actually a boon to local development. It doesn't necessarily put money in the pockets of developers who are pushing these bills.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 10:08am
Rumor has it that the legislator that introduced these bills recently purchased some property in the Grand Rapids Historic District neighborhood and then discovered that he could not do to the property what he wanted to because his proposed project did not meet the requirements of the Historic District. If this is true, it conforms with what so many of our legislators have been doing - that is, the will of their own interests or the interests of their very special sugar-daddies that got there in the first place.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 2:25pm
Yes, but the legislators are simply following the lead of Gov Snyder who in his first months in office pushed the elimination of the state business tax on Snyder's own business without ever revealing how much money he would pocket. And now Snyder with no authority unilaterally awards an $800k contract for his PERSONAL criminal defense attorney to be paid for the tax payers. So why should anyone be surprised by anything the legislature does? The Governor has no qualms about self enrichment and converting tax dollars to his own personal benefit---so why should legislators do the same thing? They know AG Schuette will do nothing.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 10:59am
And this is coming from an elected clown from Grand Rapids TOWNSHIP, a non-historic, non-city. Google Maps it just for a good laugh.
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 3:13pm
What a bunch of Fascist propaganda supporting self-interests in the threads supporting historic districts. This is simply the violation of property rights in the guise of government regulations - demonstrably corrupt governments, I submit, that are clearly owned by special interests; Governments and entities that don't drink the Flint water they poisoned.. More on point: One needs only to look at the abuses of the historic district in Huntington Woods and the recent - thus far, failed attempt - . to arbitrarily expand it to understand that you should have one set of zoning laws that applies to all, repeat all - the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution - to see how corrupt local governments are. Let the marketplace decide. Above all let the voters decide. The anti-open government Huntington Wood Commissioners and incumbent historic district and planing board members will not let this ever appear on the ballot. Telling people what color they can or cannot paint their front door is indefensible. Asking for multiple pages of documents to do so - paper only in an electronic age - is absurd. The lack of any appeal mechanism to arbitrary illegal decisions is unacceptable. There are data that say historic districts hurt property values.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 10:55am
Left Michigan years ago for historically preserved and liberal by comparison Cincinnati, OH. Republicans are ruining Michigan and they only reason I go back is to vacation and visit family.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 11:17am
I don't think the republicans destroyed downtown Detroit.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 12:02pm
Michigan was the only state in the last census that actually lost population, which means more people left or died than were born or moved there....the Flint fiasco is just the latest in a long line of failures.
John Grant
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 12:09pm
Of course they did. Do you think the auto execs that moved 380,000 good paying jobs out of Detroit were Democrats? I don't think so. The Dems and unions fought to keep jobs locally; the corporate execs of the auto companies are/were Repulicons driven by greed.
Eddie B.
Fri, 04/08/2016 - 5:26pm
It is called NAFTA, one of Reagan's bright ideas. Now we have to deal with the new TPP bill. Both of these center around corporate greed and the downfall of manufacturing in the United States.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 9:48pm
Are you suggesting that democrats cut the money that is supposed to go to cities? Those cuts were enacted by our republican friends. I also must comment, as I do every time I see an attempt to link Detroit's failure with its democratic leanings: Democrats have been in charge in Ann Arbor forever, they seem to be doing fine and at the top of nearly every list of great places to live.
Sat, 04/09/2016 - 1:40pm
The '67 riots did.
David L Richards
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 11:13am
The riots accelerated trends already in place. Jobs and people moving to the suburbs were already underway before 1967.
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 5:09pm
Actually, it was mostly Republican CEOs, who decided to "enhance shareholder value," and greatly expand the size of their paychecks, by moving manufacturing overseas, where they could pay vastly less, and make vastly more money. Most major manufacturing cities, like Detroit, Flint, Pittsburgh, and many others, started their declines when unmitigated greed became the standard among the Good Old Boys Club.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 11:20am
It never fails to amaze me (although at this point it shouldn't) that we have a Legislature that is dedicated to getting the government out of peoples lives, yet continues to pass bills that intrude on peoples lives. Were the people who LIVE in historic districts protesting that fact? Anyone in Lansing ever hear of "if it isn't broken, don't fix it"? If you don't want to live in a Historic District, don't move there! My guess is that if this becomes law, the COWARDS will put money into an appropriation so that WE THE PEOPLE can't overturn their handiwork.
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 12:04pm
Frank Bruni on the Republicans' Gay Freakout: "That must be the thinking behind Republican efforts to push through so-called religious liberty laws and other legislation — most egregiously in North Carolina — that excuse and legitimize anti-gay discrimination. They’re cynical distractions. Politically opportunistic sideshows."
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 12:54pm
So Historical District are wonderful wonderful and all that. So what's wrong with giving the residents therein the right to decide from time to time whether they want to continue or change aspects of this designation? Are you all so afraid of the will of the people???
Mi Preservation
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 2:27pm
Matt: Though the original enabling act is almost 50 years old, the law has been "modernized" and amended at least four times, making it one of the best Local Historic District Laws in the country. And the Secretary of Interior Standards, which are the guidelines for the Districts have been changed over time as well, allowing for use of alternative materials and appropriate infill in the district.
Fri, 04/08/2016 - 12:29pm
MP, I've been on the receiving end of all sorts of building code changes being mandated from various bureaucracies for many years. You learn a lot about the workings of various code and standard writing entities. There a reason the size of the building code grows by 50% with each revision and it's not necessarily for the good of mankind! There is no replacement for threat or possibility that given subject group would have the power of opting out of the jurisdiction of a regulatory body. Again why would anyone be afraid of citizens of concern periodically having the right to decide whether they want to continue with these restrictions? Is it that power, no matter how insignificant, is a hard thing to give up?
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 2:20pm
Unfortunately Gov Snyder has a proven record of being a spineless tool of any right wing legislative effort whether it is Jim Crow laws or the latest fantasy of Dick DeVos, who did not need to spend $35+ million to run for governor all he needed was Snyder as governor who does as he is told. So the right wing from West Michigan in reality wants to destroy Michigan's Historical Districts law and eventually open all the historical districts up to developers and Gov Rick Snyder will not speak out against the legislation, he will not threaten a veto, NO Snyder will just sign if that is what he is told to do just like all the other terrible policy he has signed into law. After all Snyder has put untold money in his bank account by ABOLISHING the Michigan business tax on his own business and whatever has happened since then is of no concern to him.
Mi Preservation
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 2:31pm
And Governor Snyder and his wife knowingly purchased a home in the Ann Arbor Main Street Local Historic District. They have gone through the process of making changes to their home, applying to the historic district commission, with excellent results.
Frank Wilhelme
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 2:37pm
I find it more than curious that two state agencies, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Michigan Historic Preservation Review Board have been completely silent on HB 5232 sponsored by Representative Chris Afendoulis (East Grand Rapids) and Representative Jason Sheppard (Temperance). There is compelling evidence that these agencies have been placed under a "gag" order by state officials. Its also clear after reviewing the proposed bill that neither Afendoulis or Sheppard has consulted with these agencies. I am sure that they did not want their uninformed thinking to be confused with too many facts and real world experiences.
Barry LaRue
Thu, 04/07/2016 - 3:29pm
Preservation is a long term process. Demolition is forever. Opening up district designation every ten years, for instance, costs money for elections, takes time for proponents and opponents and allows for free spending developers to sway the outcome, etc. In Ypsilanti's case, our district has been in place since 1978. Over that time many property owners have moved, died, etc. A majority of owners bought since 1978 and therefore were/are aware of the historic designation. Zoning is not required to be voted upon on a regular basis. People that buy a home in an R1 neighborhood expect that they can't turn their house into a 3 unit nor run a body shop in their garage. If your home could be re-zoned on a whim what effect could that have on most people's largest investment? Same holds true for historic district designation.
Barry Visel
Fri, 04/08/2016 - 8:54am
This article failed to explain what the two proposed bills want to change, so a full understanding of the issue is not possible from just this report. However, I glean from the examples that one of the things the bills might do is eliminate the availability of tax credits and/or other financial incentives for work done in these other words, using other people's money to do what could be done anyway without historic designations (find like-minded investors, buy the properties, and maintain them as you like). This State gives away over $30 Billion each year in tax credits, deductions and incentives, and then we wonder why we don't have money for basic infrastructure like roads, water systems, etc.
Sat, 04/09/2016 - 5:47am
I am generally Opposed to Historic Districts. Times change. These districts have become more nuisance than anything else. If you want to keep the memory, technology allows you to take Beautiful Color Digital Photos and Videos and even Digital Audio of those areas for future memorabilia.
David L Richards
Sun, 04/10/2016 - 11:20am
Mark, I don't think you would like Charleston, the French Quarter in New Orleans, Savannah, St. Augustine, Quebec City, Boston's North End, or a number of other places that large numbers of visitors living in modern residences flock to visit, year after year.
Sat, 04/09/2016 - 9:01am
I haven't heard the argument that the changes are to enable lead abatement. Tear down the house and the pipes and paint go with it.
Dave Smethurst
Sat, 04/09/2016 - 7:35pm
We have had quite a few examples when GOP legislators have passed laws that limit local government or added a few dollars to a bill so it could not be voted on by the people. Kinda funny for "conservatives" to take away local control or the people's choice. Aren't they the party of "small" government. Seems like they are the party of "We know better in Lansing."
Steve Bearden
Mon, 04/11/2016 - 2:20pm
My Husband and I own a property in Heritage Hill in Grand Rapids. Part of the reason we restored this beautiful 1888 home to its historical prominence was because of the historical restoration tax credits we received. With the assistance of the Heritage Hill Historical Society and the help of the tax credit we were able to restore this property to its historic roots and enhance one of the most treasured neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Without local government and local historical society expertise these neighborhoods would be lost to, "Only for Profit," developers who have little or no regards for historic preservation or architectural order. You would end up with sterile neighborhoods with little or no character. The author who supports no government or historical society involvement in favor of putting the money towards the roads is extremely naïve. Firstly the money would not go towards the roads and secondly the historical neighborhoods would end up a mishmash of unplanned architecture. Even the "Only for Profit" developers would abandon these neighborhoods because there would be no increase in property values without proper planning. People who want no government involvement for the good of these vital city neighborhoods because the government can't do anything right, are the same people that want government to build their roads and defend their country. The government does a lot of things right particularly when they work together with local citizens such as historical societies. It is clear to me the legislators that are promoting this legislation have an alternative motive because it makes no sense if we wish to continue to protect and develop our city neighborhoods. I have contacted my legislators and told them I am against this legislation. I hope everyone else will as well.