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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Historic Preservation Threatened?

February 26, 2016

LANSING, MI – Michigan, perhaps more than most states, has a lot of history: Automotive history, union history and scads more. But one example: Detroit is the only major American city to have been founded by the French, and later – twice – been under British rule. Ulysses Grant, as a young, unknown Army officer, raced horses up and down Jefferson Avenue. There were the days of the copper and lumber barons, some of whose magnificent mansions yet stand.

Grand Rapids and Holland have their unique, Dutch-reformed accented history as do other groups and towns from Ironwood to Monroe, with the onetime “kingdom” of Beaver Island in between. Yet two bills before the legislature could severely weaken and, perhaps, destroy historic preservation efforts in the state.

Many communities, including all of Michigan’s major cities, have formed historic districts to preserve distinguished homes and the character of their classic neighborhoods, such as Detroit’s Corktown and Indian Village—two Districts with rules designed to preserve their charm and character—that now face a major threat.

Michigan House Bill 5232 and Senate Bill 720 would put every historic district in the community out of business within a decade – and make it very hard and expensive to reestablish one. The bills, sponsored by State Representatives Chris Afendoulis (R- Grand Rapids), Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance) and State Senator Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) would first impose a 10-year “sunset” provision on every historic district. Once they’re expired, anyone seeking to restore historic district protections would face an extremely difficult hurdle. They would have to take their case to the people in the nearest general election, and a) win at least two-thirds of the votes of people who live within that district, and b) win majority approval from the rest of the city.

That, according to the House Fiscal Agency, means it would dramatically increase the costs to local government of setting up a district. Realistically, it also means that an ad campaign by a developers’ association against allowing, “Special breaks for special interests” could easily destroy any historic preservation effort. That would be not only a cultural, but an economic disaster for the state, said Larry Wagenaar, the executive director of the Historical Society of Michigan, which has been around since 1828 – nine years before Michigan even became a state.

“This proposed legislation would critically damage Michigan’s Historic District Act, which serves as a significant economic driver on Michigan, preserves our heritage in important ways, and provides for true local control of Michigan’s historical building assets,” he said. The society’s trustees last month unanimously passed a resolution calling on the legislature to reject these bills, claiming that since the modern historic district program began in 1970, it has had a positive net “economic impact of $3.9 billion and (resulted in) the creation of 44,250 jobs.” (Full disclosure; this columnist is a non-paid member of the non-profit society’s board).

The house bill’s sponsors, Afendoulis and Sheppard, say all this is an “overreaction.”  In a column in the Detroit Free Press, they argued that what they are proposing is only a “modernization” of historic preservation laws. “Our proposals strike the right balance between preserving historic districts while protecting private property rights,” they argue. However, virtually everyone concerned with historic preservation in the state sharply disagrees.

Suzanne Schulz, the planning director for the city of Grand Rapids, told John Gallagher—who covers architecture for the Detroit Free Press–that she thought without the current preservation laws, greedy developers would have already destroyed two-thirds of her city’s Heritage Hill district. Others have invoked nightmare visions of someone sticking vinyl siding on a Frank Lloyd Wright house, or putting a strip mall across the street from a beautiful Victorian neighborhood.

State Senator Steve Bieda (D-Warren), is possibly the legislature’s biggest history buff; he is one of only a few Americans to ever have designed a coin for the U.S. Mint (the 1992 Olympic half dollar) and  helped raise funds to place replicas of Civil War cannons in front of the state’s classic Elijah J. Myers-designed Capitol dome. He is incensed by the effort to weaken historic preservation in the state, saying, “Why is it that every time Grand Rapids’ big money has an issue they employ their minions to gut state law for their own interests?” he said. There are rumors swirling around the capital that this is where the pressure is coming from, though it isn’t clear whether the push to weaken historic preservation is being backed by the powerful DeVos family, executives of the Meijer family, or both.

In any event, Bieda thinks the proposed change would be a disaster. “Michigan has a rich and diverse history; the architectural beauty, (but) the sense of place, and who we are as a people are under attack by deep-moneyed interests that fly in the face of the long-term economic interests of this state and our people.”

What Governor Rick Snyder will do if these bills land on his desk isn’t clear, though he has a track record of signing pretty much everything an increasingly conservative legislature puts on his desk. But opponents may have one glimmer of hope: the governor, a multimillionaire and former venture capitalist, recently bought a home in Ann Arbor’s Main Street Historic District.

Signing these bills would not be likely to please his neighbors.  

Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

February 25, 2016 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Anagnorisis // Feb 26, 2016 at 8:57 am

    It is curious that anyone would seek to eviscerate Michigan history as that is about all that’s left of, yes, hysterical preservation. This is nothing new, though, I personally having watched “urban renewal” destroying thousands of historic buildings throughout the state. We cynics like to say “follow the money” though it seems just as apropos to say follow the hypocrisy.

  • 2 Tom S // Feb 26, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Not only did the governor recently buy a condo in Ann Arbor’s Main Street Historic District, he received approval from the Historic District Commission for his rear and rooftop additions. The existing system worked fine for him.

  • 3 Nancy Kotting // Feb 26, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Assuming Snyder is not incarcerated by the time this hits his desk, IF it gets that far, I would venture to guess he might just take the opportunity to do something GOOD for Michigan. Once could hope. My testimony submitted to the public record following the hearing last Wednesday:

    ‘I appreciate the opportunity to add my voice to this hearing and to go on the public record when I say that this bill, and the process by which it has come to be, constitute one of the most disgraceful examples of governance in Michigan that I have witnessed, only to be surpassed by the poisoning of our own residents by the very government we rely on to protect us. We elect you, our legislators to create legislation that protects our residents, our natural resources, our cultural resources and our economy from undue harm. Our state is currently experiencing a failure of epic proportion. We look to you to provide solutions to such problems. Today, we are here, wasting our precious time, discussing a solution to a problem that does not exist.

    Michigan is better than this.

    It is unacceptable that a private entity, and it sure would be nice if somebody had the decency of transparency to tell us who, is allowed to hire and compensate a lobbyist to write a piece of legislation they desire, legislation which is then delivered to an elected representative who makes some edits and brings it to committee. This represents a clear hijacking of the legislative process by private interests. Contrary to the national trend, this is NOT how democracy works.

    Michigan is better than this.

    In reviewing HB5232 in its second draft, one can only come to the obvious conclusion that a methodical process of due diligence did not occur, to the detriment of all who may fall under the rule of this legislation should it become law. It is your responsibility, as legislators, to insure that ANY legislation you create does not have an adverse, negative impact on the citizens of Michigan. I firmly believe that proper due diligence, such as an economic impact study, if allowed, would reveal that HB5232, in its current form, would have, over time, a catastrophic cultural, social and economic impact on the citizens of Michigan.

    Michigan is better than this.

    HB5232 in its current form, would allow local units to apply standards of their own choosing in evaluating proposed alterations to our historic resources. Ladies and gentleman there are over 50 graduate and undergraduate degree programs in the field of historic preservation in the United States. The largest graduate program in the country is right here in Michigan, just 90 minutes south of us, producing highly qualified professionals in the field. There are those qualified to evaluate applications for alterations and repairs to historic structures and there are those not qualified to make such decisions. Our current legislation provides us the privilege of having some of the best and brightest, trained professionals in the field of Historic Preservation, guide us as we determine the course of action regarding the protection of our cultural resources. The standards which we currently apply in such evaluations are not random, nor politically determined. They are the result of a methodical research and development conducted by the top professionals in the field, standards applied in historic districts across the country and standards which have served us well in protecting our national, regional and local treasures for the benefit of all.

    What distinguishes successful governance? Performing above and beyond that which is required of it. Extraordinary leadership, of which you are all capable, exceeds our expectations, meeting and rising above that which is required. To think that this body would present we citizens with legislation that would accept a lowering of standards is the domain of failure.

    Michigan is better than this.

    Mr. Chairman, I implore you to kill this senseless bill now, in committee and further that all of you reflect upon the oath you made as legislators, that you discern your own values and responsibilities as elected officials in finding intelligent, well constructed ways to safeguard all that we treasure in our beautiful state: our natural resources, our cultural resources, our legacy and our residents themselves.

    Thank you.

    Individuals interested in stopping this bill may contact the Local Government Committee Chairman Lee Chatfield and request he leave it off the agenda, effectively ‘letting it die in committee’ 517-373-2629 Or request sponsor Chris Afendoulis withdraw it: 517-373-0218

  • 4 #SaveYourHD in the News | PRESERVATION FARMINGTON // Feb 27, 2016 at 8:57 pm

    […] Historic preservation threatened? by Jack Lessenberry, Dome Magazine, 2/26 (also printed in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, 2/27) […]

  • 5 Live list of Resolutions, Press and Blogs in Opposition to Michigan HB 5232 | Watapama // Feb 29, 2016 at 8:13 pm

    […] Historic Preservation Threatened?, by Jack Lessenberry (Dome Magazine, February 26, 2016) […]

  • 6 Pamela Young Setla // Mar 4, 2016 at 9:42 am

    How about taking care of roads and the infrastructure instead of wasting time on an excellent program that has shown results that help the economy by drawing tourists, saving our history and making towns beautiful. A proposal like this makes Michigan a laughingstock.


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