Opinion: Michigan's Historic Districts Act isn't broke, so don't fix it

I am concerned about our future ability to provide protection for historic properties in Detroit’s local historic districts. This means such great places to live as the Villages, Sherwood Forest, Lafayette Park, and Boston-Edison. This means great buildings that have benefitted from investment such as the Grand Army of the Republic, Broderick Tower, David Whitney, and First National buildings. This also means established centers of business such as Midtown, Corktown, and Southwest Detroit. These and many others around Detroit are the historic places that, if lost, would strike an economic blow to Detroit and make it less distinctive.
My concern stems from House Bill 5232 and the identical Senate Bill 720 introduced Jan. 26 by Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-East Grand Rapids) and Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) respectively.
The proposed legislation is the most serious threat to historic preservation in Michigan since PA 169 of 1970 – The Local Historic Districts Act – was enacted. The way in which the current bills are written, as introduced, would effectively eliminate historic districts in 78 communities across the state including Detroit. New stipulations would undermine residents and empower larger property owners (perhaps even out-of-town speculators) to determine the fate of a local historic district with yet unsubstantiated boundaries by requiring a two-thirds property owner majority to even begin studying it. A majority vote of the city-wide electorate would then be needed for approval. The appeals process would be politicized by moving it from a non-partisan state board of experts to local elected officials. The bills would allow the use of ambiguous design standards instead of the nationally-recognized U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s "Standards for Rehabilitation." Elimination of a district would not have to follow the same careful process as that used to establish it. And current and future historic districts would be dissolved after 10 years unless a popular vote approved renewal, an exorbitant cost and administrative nightmare for a city like Detroit with over 130 local historic districts.
My own opinion is that there is nothing like this level of uncertainty and ambiguity to make it impossible for people to invest in Detroit.
I have been working in the city for over 30 years, confident that preservation is a long-term commitment here. I started Turner Restoration in 2001 because owners of historic buildings needed trained people to do their restoration projects. With four or five employees working with me, the company has completed over 200 projects, 65 percent in Detroit and southeast Michigan and many in local historic districts. The beauty of preservation is that the economic growth it spurs does not have to be large-scale. I commonly am working with an individual property owner undertaking a single project. They have found their craftspeople and materials locally, keeping our dollars within the community.
Detroit is also where I live. I moved into the Arden Park-East Boston Historic District in 1988 after purchasing my house, the former residence of James Alvan Macauley, one-time president of Packard Motor Company. The home was built in 1911 and I see myself preparing it for its next 100 years. I did not buy this house solely as an investment but because I appreciated this historic district and the quality of all Detroit’s historic neighborhoods. We are a locally protected district and a visually distinctive neighborhood with committed residents. Yes, it takes education to keep us all on the same page, but when we go before the Historic District Commission, our plans are approved.
Historic preservation has been a crucial economic driver in Detroit’s continued revitalization. Since 1996, over $350 million has been invested in the city through the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives program. Of the 89 buildings involved, over half have been rehabilitated within the past six years. Our historic districts have been helping lead the rebound as well, attracting investment and tax-paying residents. Tellingly, almost 75 percent of neighborhoods that have now seen their property values exceed pre-recession values were located near or within historic districts.
The need for skilled tradespeople is a common challenge and invites us to see sustained preservation activity as a lucrative part of the construction industry in which young people, the underemployed, and simply those with an interest could benefit from training programs and apprenticeships. The Detroit City Council certainly sees preservation’s bottom line, unanimously passing on Feb. 2 a resolution in opposition to the recent bills.
Gutting the Local Historic Districts Act extinguishes the long-term horizon of stability I need to continue investing in my home and my business. Sustaining the Act’s existing provisions, on the other hand, is the most potent means by which I and others can spur growth in Detroit with our historic assets. Let’s not fix something that isn’t broken.
James A. Turner is the president and owner of Turner Restoration in Detroit. He is an advisor of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a former board member of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN) and Preservation Wayne (Preservation Detroit today), and a popular instructor in the preservation trades around the U.S.
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