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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


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