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Grand Rapids preservationists to state lawmakers: hands off our historic districts

Grand Rapids resident Tim West has lived in the city on and off for 35 years now, and he says he’s seen how historic districts have transformed the neighborhoods.

“I have witnessed the neighborhoods in and around Heritage Hill gradually become safer and more beautiful, attracting more and more foot traffic, and more and more revenue along with that,” says West, who currently resides along Fulton Avenue in the historic James Russell house, which is now functioning as a co-op. “The quality of life is certainly improving, and I wouldn't want it any other way.”

West is just one of many local historic preservation advocates who are worried about the future of Grand Rapids’ historic districts with the announcement of proposed twin legislation HB 5232 and SB 720 — dubbed the Historic Preservation Modernization Act.

Not only would the legislation require current historic districts to reapply for their historic status every 10 years, but  neighborhoods would have to re-earn district status by landing the support of two-thirds of property owners in the designated area, as well as with a city-wide vote. Should a district not land this support, it would be dissolved.

The legislation has drawn ire from throughout Michigan, with historic preservationists, city planning officials and other civic leaders saying such stipulations would seriously endanger historic districts in Grand Rapids, and the entire state, by, for example, allowing large property owners to determine the future of districts and disempowering neighbors who would be the most impacted with the city-wide vote.

“We believe that HB 5232 & SB 720 jeopardize property owners’ investments in historic districts by subjecting districts to a citywide renewal vote every 10 years,” Heritage Hill Neighborhood Association President Jim Payne writes in a letter posted on the group’s website. “This would allow the vote of residents outside of a historic district to determine if that district would continue to be allowed to exist. This provision actually takes away local control — control by neighborhood residents that these historic districts have always enjoyed.”

State Rep. Chris Afendoulis, who represents East Grand Rapids and who introduced the House bill, says his legislation intends to give back decision making power to individual property owners living in historic districts, who often cannot make the renovations they want because of the districts’ restrictive regulations.

“The pendulum has swung too far to one side in only allowing people to do things that look great, but aren’t affordable for your average homeowner,” says Afendoulis, who conceptualized HB 5232 after watching neighbors in East Grand Rapids fail to create a historic district there.

“When I campaigned for office, one of the things I said was that I believe in property rights,” Afendoulis says. “We have a goal for historic preservation, but I also look at it and say, ‘We’ve got such advancements in building materials and construction techniques, and to sit there and say those things aren’t authentic because they weren’t around 100 years ago and so they won’t look good doesn’t make sense.’”

However, both local and state historic preservationists say the bill operates under the assumption that one size fits all, and Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s Nancy Finegood says that’s just not the way it works.

“There’s less expensive alternatives available, and it just depends on what you’re talking about,” says Finegood, the executive director of the MHPN. “For example, rehabbing windows as opposed to replacing — initially the expense may be more, but they’ve lasted 100 years and will last 100 more years — as opposed to cheaper replacement windows, which may have to be replaced again every 10 to 15 years.”

Finegood’s perspective echoes that of local leaders like Suzanne Schulz, planning director for the city of Grand Rapids.

“The unfortunate thing is that we’re not really understanding what was broken, and what we need to fix to begin with, because the (current) act has really held up well, and I think when we look at those neighborhoods that it’s protected, they’re our highest value neighborhoods and they have been the most stable ones throughout the years,” says Schulz, who was been working alongside Afendoulis to make changes to the most disagreeable parts of the bill — such as the 10-year sunset clause and city-wide vote — to create a substitute version of the legislation that Afendoulis says is expected to hit the floor next week.

“Historic district preservation works so well in fragile neighborhoods, where they are definitely of high quality, but they’re also at great risk from people who don’t value the structures themselves,” she says, saying measures currently taken protect homeowners’ property values by preserving the architectural and historic integrity that would otherwise be open to interpretation by individual property owners who may not all have such good intentions.

“The historic district law allows for protections and guarantees for property owners when they invest that there is some confidence they can have when they buy into a neighborhood,” Schulz concludes. “By removing that and taking that away, I don’t know how that’s protecting individuals at all.”

Written by Anya Zentmeyer, Development News Editor
Images courtesy of Anna Gustafson
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