Why This Old House Matters to Detroit

There isn't another home like Eric and Anita Criteser's on a bucolic street in Islandview Village.

"That it survived," Eric says, "the fact that it's still here makes it special. It could have been bulldozed years ago like so much of the city."

An original ribbon-farm house circa 1859, it was built by former U.S. Rep. Moses W. Field on the street that bears his name. A virgin adjacent lot houses a 150-plus-year-old French pear tree that still bears fruit. There are too many ornate marble fireplaces and potbelly stoves in the house to count, and little cherub faces peek out at you from a number of nooks and crannies.

"People always say it was better in the old days," Eric says. "Well, how would we know that if we didn't have any nice old things to look at?"

We wouldn't know. We would be stuck with Generica -- a land of fast-food restaurants, strip malls, surface parking lots and starter-castle McMansions that are equally indistinguishable and unremarkable.

But saving historic structures isn't just good for the soul. It makes economic sense, too, says Donovan Rypkema, a renowned historical preservationist.

"Generica isn’t just a California phenomenon or just a city or suburban phenomena," Rypkema says. "Generica is happening everywhere and I would suggest it is at the heart of the challenge of economic development, smart growth and place economics. Generica undermines all five senses – the sense of place, of evolution, of ownership, of identity and of community."

Rypkema is principal of PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate and economic development-consulting firm. He also authored "The Economics of Historic Preservation" and is an unabashed historic structure hugger, making intricate arguments for preserving America and against Generica.

"Generica diminishes each of the five senses. Preservation of the historic built environment enhances each of the five senses, and constitutes the physical manifestation of a community of memory," Rypkema says. "Historic preservation builds both community and place. Generica destroys both community and place."

The numbers

The numbers behind his arguments are staggering. Those numbers all revolve around money, such as jobs, household income, tax base and tourist dollars to name a few.

He points out that every $1 million in manufacturing production in Michigan results in an average creation of 14 jobs and $571,000 in local household income. Put those same dollars into rehabbing a historic structure and 20.5 jobs are created with $800,000 in local household income. On top of that, a community can employ its building trade people by renovating 2 to 3 percent of its building stock each year.

Preserving those historic places also brings in more money through vehicles like tourism. Rypkema says people visiting historic sites spend 2.5 times as much money compared to other visitors. They tend to stay longer, spend more per day and have a greater economic impact.
"After decades of declaring that communities had to choose between historic preservation and economic development, professionals in the field are finally realizing that is a false choice," Rypkema says. "That instead historic preservation is an excellent vehicle for economic development."

For both short- and long-term. Property values for buildings in historic areas increase more on average than those that are not and are more stable in turbulent times. The more stringent the historic district, the higher appreciation and better price stability, he says.

And then there are the feel-good arguments for historic preservation, like sustainability, smart growth, attracting a creative class and affordable housing.

For instance, 25 percent of everything that goes into a landfill is construction waste, much of which comes from razing buildings. Tearing down one building erases the environmental benefit of 1.344 million aluminum cans, Rypkema says.

"We've not only wasted an historic building, we've wasted months of diligent recycling by the good people of our community," Rypkema says. "Now why doesn't every environmentalist have a bumper sticker saying 'Recycle your aluminum cans and your historic buildings'?"

Old neighborhoods were built on the principles of density, walkability, mass transit and proximity to life's necessities, like schools and businesses -- all the things new urbanists try to replicate in cornfields in exurbia within a plastic Novi-esque feel. No wonder the creative class flocks to historic neighborhoods filled with authentic, established character and low housing costs.

"It is no accident that the creative, imaginative, small start-up firm isn't located in the corporate office campus, the industrial park or the shopping center – they simply cannot afford the rents there," Rypkema says. "Older and historic commercial buildings play that role, nearly always with no subsidy or assistance of any kind."

Preserving a MindField

Downtown-based MindField is a textbook example of this. Two brothers and their best friend with big dreams and small piles of money formed the all-media marketing firm, setting up shop in an old downtown storefront in the early 1990s. They loved the building's fire-sale price, its rich history and the opportunity it presented to create something special.

"We came in with just enough money that we could buy the building and make small renovations as we went on," says Tom Carleton, one of MindField's partners. "We could do it one floor at a time, one space at a time."

The five-story building at 1250 Library dates to 1907. It originally housed a shop that at one point sold more sheet music than anywhere else in the country. The heavy supports for the printing presses can still be seen. Later, it was a shop selling home appliances like washing machines. The pipes for a dozen demonstration washing machines were still in the floor when the MindField guys restored it.

Carleton and his partners now have their eyes on the iconic but long-abandoned Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) Building (the brown castle-like structure) at West Grand River and Cass avenues. Plans are to buy it from the city and restore it.

To them it's a deal on a diamond in the rough. It's also a beautiful place with a long story.

Historical structures are "what captures the character of a city," Carleton says. "It's the exclamation point of a city. It says this is an area that is successful. It has been around and it will thrive."

A city all its own

That type of context is also what gives older communities an advantage when it comes to competing with Generica Township.

"If you tear down all of the historic buildings downtown and build new, what are we?" asks Mark Nickita, president of downtown-based architecture firm Archive DS. "We're Troy with higher taxes and a worse school district."

Archive DS makes it home in the Guardian Building, a one-of-a-kind skyscraper that plays a critical role in making Detroit, Detroit.

"The idea that tying into history and something that has a certain level of community to it or ties is an important basis for building the community," Nickita says. "The sense of place clearly is a result of the tradition that has been built over 100 years. That's harder to acquire in newer communities."

That sense of place is key to revival, Rypkema says.

"I cannot identify a single example of a sustained success story in downtown revitalization where historic preservation wasn’t a key component of that strategy. Not a one," Rypkema says. "Conversely, the examples of very expensive failures in downtown revitalization have nearly all had the destruction of historic buildings as a major element."

Jon Zemke is a Detroit resident and frequent Model D contributor. He is also the News Editor of Concentrate and metromode. A version of this story that appeared in Concentrate can be found here and another can be seen in metromode here.


Eric and Anita Criteser's farmhouse

Ongoing renovations in historic Indian Village

Donovan Rypkema - courtesy photo

Carleton brothers at MindField Studios

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.
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