Wednesday, March 9, 2016

More On SB5232 And SB720

Michigan Central Railroad Jackson Depot
Michigan State Historic Preservation Office
Hello Everyone:

We are going to switch gears from the Primaries to the ongoing story in Michigan of a pair of bills that would upend the state's historic districts.  Louis Aguilar of The Detroit News presents the arguments both sides of this issue in his recent article "Battle lines drawn over Michigan historic districts."  In three previous posts: "Historic Preservation As A Tool For Good" (02/08/16),  "Why We Need Historic Districts, A Follow Up (02/17?16)", and Look Elsewhere For Reasons" (02/29/16). we talked about the reasons for historic districts.  Now we are going to look at the reasons for and against historic districts. Currently, the measure was formally introduced a few weeks ago in a committee of the Michigan House of Representatives.  The companion bill is expected to be introduced in the State Senate.  Preservationists fear that if passed, these bills would destroy the 1970 state law that created historic districts.  Let us first have a look at the argument in favor of this bill.

Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids)
Representative Chris Afendoulis sponsored HB 5232 while the companion bill, SB 720, was sponsored by state Senator Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford).  Rep. Afendoulis told Mr. Aguilar,

Our goal is not to hurt historic preservation but to protect local property owners.

Supporters of the bill contend that they want to modernize the original 1970.  However, few on the opposing side of the argument actually believe this statement.  Just to give you all an idea of how polemic this issue, supporters for and against the bills have packed public meetings, debated the matter on the social media, flooded politicians with emails and phone calls from every corner of the "Great Lakes" state.  James Turner, a Detroit resident and adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation said,

This is the most serious threat to historic preservation in Michigan since the local historic districts were enacted...It is not just neighborhoods, but even the ongoing redevelopment of downtown Detroit benefits from historic districts.

Senator Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford)

Louis Aguilar writes, "Historic district are a popular way to protect notable neighborhoods, homes, skyscrapers, industrial buildings and other sides such as parks."  He points out that once a historic district is established, it is had to demolish a building or structure.  Actually, there are additional layers of protection that require alternative plans to demolition.  Mr. Aguilar add, "When changes are made, modifications usually must adhere to strict guidelines aimed at preserving the original character of the building or place."  While this statement is mostly true, a property can do replacements-in-kind.  The strict guidelines Mr. Aguilar speaks of are designed to maintain the historic defining features of a property and prevent inappropriate changes and modifications.

There are currently 78 historic districts in Michigan, encompassing 20,000 homes.  Historic preservation advocates point to data which shows historic district increase the value of a property.  However, some state Republicans counter that preservation has become a cudgel.  They handcuff property owner rights and give too much power to unelected officials.  Kent County Republican chairman John Inhulsen and supporter of the bills told Mr. Aguilar,

The system is broken...You'd be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn't support historic preservation...But I think homeowners should have more say about their properties than some unelected board.  If you buy into a historic area, I think most people know the value of that and will protect that.

East Ferry Avenue Historic District
Detroit, Michigan
The bills in the Lansing statehouse would make major changes to the current historic district law.  Among them are:

*They would overhaul who serves on local historic district commissions.  State law currently says those appointed to local historic commission should "demonstrated interest in or knowledge of historic preservation  The bills require that that any historic commission should include a local elected official, local developer and at least one resident from the proposed historic district.

* The bills would require two-thirds of property owners in the area to approve historic districts; no such vote is needed now.  After that, two-thirds of the local government body must approve it; no such approval is needed now.

* A historic district could be eliminated through the same two-thirds approval process that it takes to create one.

* Local historic districts would longer have to follow federal standards of what is historic.  Local historic districts use federal guidelines now as their main criteria for establishing a historic district Those guidelines now as their main criteria for establishing a historic district.  Those guidelines cover a wide range of what to preserve and what kind of changes are allowed.

Krause Memorial Branch Library
Rockford, Michigan
Condemnation for the bills have come from several municipal governments.  The Detroit City Council is among the local government bodies that passed a resolution denouncing the measures, "contending they will deny communities a key economic took that protects local cultural legacy."  Detroit Council member Mary Sheffield, whose district includes the Indian Village, Boston-Edison, West Village historic districts and the Mies Van der Rohe homes in Lafayette Park told Louis Aguilar:

I have gotten tons of emails, tons of phone calls from residents who oppose this bill.

Brush Park Detroit, Michigan
Ms. Sheffield also represents the Brush Park historic districts and cites the former Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center as an example of the efficacy historic districts.  The former Andrew Carnegie-built library was scheduled for demolition.  Fortunately, Ms. Sheffield and city officials implemented historic district protection measures to put off demolition.  This gave them some time to find a new use for the place where boxer Joe Louis trained. Happy to report that the former recreation center is part of a $37 million future mixed-use residential/retail development.  The building will be re-purposed as a restaurant with a rooftop beer garden, basement bar, performance space, and office space for non-profit groups.

Council member Mary Sheffield
Mary Sheffield enthuses,

That's the real power of historic districts...These bills could politicize the debate of what is historic.  What we currently have in place allows extensive community input.  The goal is to protect and preserve.

Rep. Chris Afendoulis and his fellow supporters of the bills state that their goal is to give property owners more say in the process, not destroy historic districts.  Louis Aguilar writes, "It's part of a Republican campaign being waged in several states, including Wisconsin, where similar legislation has passes.  In Utah, similar legislation has been introduced.

About a week ago, Rep. Afendoulis introduced a new version of the measure that he hopes will down some of the criticism.  The new version eliminates the requirement of that two-thirds of a municipal government body must approve any district, giving it veto power.  However, the latest draft has not eased the criticism.  Nancy Finegood  the executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network said,

He had made it even worse by adding an additional two-thirds vote...His intent is clear.  He wants to make it impossible for any new (historic districts) to be created and extremely easy for existing commissions' decisions to be influenced and politicized.

There is more to come.

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