Michigan's primary tool for preserving historic buildings and neighborhoods could disappear

Reimer Priester knows the joys and occasional frustrations of owning a building in a historically-designated district. A managing member of Detroit-based DeCamp-Priester Real Estate Group, he loves historic architecture. But when he wanted to do work on the crown molding of a building in Midtown Detroit, he found that this minor, albeit attractive, detail would cost over $10,000 to faithfully restore.

"We couldn't touch it because it was prohibitively expensive to do so," says Priester.

This case exemplifies issues that can arise when renovating in a local historic district, as building owners who want to modify their facade have to adhere to the Secretary of the Interior's standards for preservation, which are enforced by local historic district commissions. This is meant to both protect the history and aesthetics of a building, and in sum, the character of its neighborhood.

This process has been in place in Michigan for over 40 years, but could soon change fundamentally. Bills in Michigan's House (HB 5232) and Senate (SB 720) were introduced in late January that would, at every stage, loosen restrictions on building owners. The effect on historic districts could be significant.

The new House bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R, East Grand Rapids), would add challenges for historic district approval, increase leeway for homeowners to renovate a building within historic districts, and ultimately make it easier to dissolve such districts. For example, one clause requires two-thirds of a neighborhood residents' signatures just to direct a study committee. Another, known as the "sunset" clause, stipulates that historic districts must renew their designation every 10 years.

Preservationists, it seems, are universally united against HB 5232. "There's nothing good about this bill," says Mac Farr, executive director of the Villages Community Development Corporation in Detroit, which encompasses six historic districts. "It's a continuation of the mindless drive to roll back government even when it's doing good. It's a solution in search of a problem."

Detroit's West Village Historic District

There are hundreds of historic districts in Michigan, and preservationists worry about the future of many of them, especially in neighborhoods with less active community groups. "If this bill passes, I doubt there will be any new historic districts formed," says Nancy Finegood, executive director of the
Michigan Historic Preservation Network. "And a lot of districts may simply dissolve if they have to go through the entire process of creating it again every 10 years."

Detroit's City Council issued a statement denouncing the bills, especially the two-thirds resident approval requirement, which it sees as an impractically high obstacle. Because approximately 60 percent of Detroit's buildings are owner-occupied, and owners who don't occupy their buildings are less likely to respond to a petition request, the city's legislative body argued that HB 5232 would "render the preliminary approval requirement virtually impossible to meet in many instances."

The sponsors of the bill in Lansing argue that the current law creates unnecessary restrictions on homeowners. To them, it's a property rights issue. "This [bill] will help many communities maintain their historic identity while ensuring private property owners have a greater voice," said Afendoulis in a press release.

They believe owners should have greater freedom to modify buildings, which is why the bill allows the historic district commissions to merely consult current standards. For example, one of the Secretary of Interior's guidelines states that "distinctive materials, features, finishes, and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a property will be preserved." This means that a homeowner could not use a less expensive composite material as a replacement under the current law.

But preservationists argue these considerations are already taken into account. Building owners can appeal decisions by a historic district commission and, according to Finegood, over 90 percent of those appeals are approved. She also says there's flexibility in the standards themselves. In the same set guidelines, it states that, "The existing condition of historic features will be evaluated to determine the appropriate level of intervention needed."

Simply put, if a feature or building can be preserved and salvaged, then preserve it. If it can't, then don't. The same principles apply to restoration, demolition, and new construction.

Pontiac's Seminole Hills Historic DistrictImplicit in the bill is a classic debate: whether free market forces or a degree of regulation will result in stronger local economies. But in this case, there's almost no argument. The data show an undeniable correlation between real-estate values and preserving the historic character of a neighborhood.

"Almost 75 percent of neighborhoods that have now seen their property values exceed pre-recession values were located near or within historic districts," wrote James Turner, owner of Turner Restoration in Detroit, in an op-ed for Model D.

In many of Michigan's struggling cities, historic ordinances have been used to protect housing values.

In Pontiac, historic neighborhoods are a bright spot in an otherwise flat housing market.
Joseph Bishop, a 15-year resident of Pontiac's Seminole Hills historic district, told Metromode in March of 2015 that houses for sale on his street never remain on the market long, adding that though it may be somewhat expensive to update windows to historic standards mandated by the city, he is happy to oblige. "I respect the city wanting to keep the historic integrity of the neighborhood," he says.

Tim West, a 35-year resident of the Heritage Hill historic district in Grand Rapids, has only seen his neighborhood improve over the years. "I've witnessed the neighborhoods in and around Heritage Hill gradually become safer and more beautiful, attracting more and more foot traffic," says West. "The quality of life is certainly improving, and I wouldn't want it any other way. The bill in question would only remove the safeguards that have made it possible."

Heritage Hill Historic District, Grand Rapids

Detroit City Council's report noted that the 10-year renewal requirement could even negatively impact real-estate values in neighborhoods that aren't likely to lose their designation. "The attraction of historic district designation results, in large part, from the degree of stability it affords. Amending existing legislation to include a 'sunset' clause would add an element of uncertainty to the process that would negate many of its benefits," the Council writes.

There's also a fear that outside speculators and developers would have a greater incentive to buy buildings and reshape them without considering the community's overall makeup. This might increase a building's value in the short-term, but destabilize a neighborhood long-term. "Many of these buildings are exquisite and their features give life and animation to a community," Priester says. "But if you have someone who doesn't care about the historic integrity, and there always will be, then you might lose that which gives an area its personality."

But Priester's dilemma with repairing his building's crown demonstrates the current process could use, if not wholesale amending, some tweaking. Farr notes he's heard a few complaints from residents about overly stringent rulings from the historic district commission over shrub placement or color choices. "The historic commission could do itself a favor by focusing solely on aspects of preservation that are relevant," he says.

Priester's real-estate group owns three buildings in historic districts and has dealt with Detroit's historic district commission numerous times. "They haven't placed undue or unexpected roadblocks in our way. But that may be because we've been proactive and never undertaken any action without their approval."

By and large, these historic neighborhoods attract people who, because of their interest in preservation, don't mind the extra effort of applying to local commissions when renovating. Farr himself renovated a home in the Indian Village historic district. The process was more complicated, but he knew that going in. "I was aware well in advance of purchasing the house that I had to comply with certain regulations, that it wouldn't be easier or faster," he says.

Historic preservation is more challenging. For those who care about it, that's just the way it should be.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @aaronmondry.

Anya Zentmeyer and Michael Boettcher contributed reporting to this story.
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Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.