Rapid Blog: Afendoulis bill should disappear, not Grand Rapids' historic districts

The historic preservation movement in Grand Rapids has a long and successful history, but two proposed bills put the future of saving our city's history in serious jeopardy, longtime historic preservationist Rebecca Smith-Hoffman writes.
Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, along with Jennifer Metz, owns Past Perfect, an historic preservation consulting firm that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.  Past Perfect has participated in a number of successful Grand Rapids rehabilitation projects, including the Peck Block, the Berkey & Gay Furniture Factory, the American Seating Factory Complex, the Century Furniture Company, the Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant, and many others.  Smith-Hoffman has been involved in the historic preservation movement for the past 30 years. She currently chairs the Grand Rapids Historical Commission.

Rep. Chris Afendoulis’ (R-East Grand Rapids) House Bill 5232 and Sen. Peter MacGregor's (R-Rockford) Senate Bill 720, which purport to “modernize” PA 169, the Michigan Historic District Act, will in practice destroy historic preservation in Michigan along with the benefits arising from historic districts — economic development, neighborhood stability and improvement, and increasing property values. While waving the red flag of protecting “property rights,” this legislation tramples the rights of everyone who owns property in an historic district and removes all benefits of the protection offered under PA 169.  Further, it robs communities of local government control.

I attended the hearing before the House Local Government committee on January 27, when Mr. Afendoulis introduced his bill and presented the justification for it. It became clear that he had no idea how the historic district ordinance operated in Grand Rapids, or in any other Michigan community. Nor did he appear to care that he didn’t have a clear understanding. John Logie, who drafted PA 169 and promoted historic preservation as a planning tool throughout his 12 years as mayor of Grand Rapids was not consulted. The Grand Rapids Planning Department and the Grand Rapids Historic Preservation Office, which deals with the ordinance daily, were not consulted. No one who owns property in the city’s historic districts appears to have been consulted. So, rather than creating public policy on the basis of long years of experience and success, Mr. Afendoulis seems to believe that public policy should be created based upon his imagination.

The Peck Block represents 10 years of effort on the part of Rebecca Smith-Hoffman and many others to prevent the pictured building from being demolished for a parking lot.The historic preservation movement in Grand Rapids has a long and successful history.  It developed in the 1960s in response to the destruction of the central city by urban renewal plans and the near West Side by the construction of the freeway. Until the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, there was no requirement that the impact of urban renewal or interstate highway projects on historic resources be reviewed. Section 106 of the Act required that prior to the expenditure of any federal funds, the effect of the project on “any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in, or eligible for inclusion of the National Register” be studied. Further, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation would determine whether the project would adversely affect the resources.  The 1966 Act came too late to save many buildings in the downtown urban renewal district or those in the path of the freeway, but it did save Heritage Hill.

The Heritage Hill Association was formed in 1968, in response to the threat posed to the neighborhood by the College Park Urban Renewal Plan and various other plans, which would have destroyed nearly 75 percent of the neighborhood. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, the Heritage Hill Historic District is one the country’s largest urban residential districts. It contains 1,400 structures representing the major American architectural styles of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Heritage Hill was the first district in the nation to use Section 106 of the Historic Preservation Act to request a review of the College Park Urban Renewal Plan by the Advisory Council.  John Logie, then a young lawyer and resident of the district, traveled to Washington, D.C. to convince the Secretary of the Interior and the Advisory Council to send representatives to tour Heritage Hill. The result of the tour was a determination that the renewal plan would have an adverse effect on the historic resources contained within the historic district and federal funds would not be released for the project.

Cherry Hill Historic District.The Association then began to work for enabling legislation in Michigan that would allow for the establishment of local historic districts to provide protection from wholesale demolition and to guide owners in the care and maintenance of their houses. The result of their efforts was the Michigan Historic District Act 169 of 1970, initially drafted by John Logie. The Historic District Ordinance was adopted by the Grand Rapids City Commission in 1973, an Historic Preservation Commission was appointed, and Heritage Hill became the city’s first historic district. There are now 78 communities in Michigan with one or more historic districts designated under PA 169.

In 1979, the Heartside Historic District was designated.  The district was expanded in 1984, 1999, and 2003 at the request of building owners.  Heartside’s warehouse and manufacturing structures have been rehabilitated for multiple uses and now house apartments, offices, bars, restaurants, and other commercial uses.

In the 1990s, neighborhoods to the east of Heritage Hill, which were experiencing the problems of absentee ownership, neglect and lack of investment, chose to establish historic districts to provide stability and to prevent the continuing demolition of housing.  The first of these – the Cherry Hill Historic District was designated in 1994, soon to be followed by the Wealthy Theatre Historic District in 1997 and the Fairmount Square Historic District in 1999.

Other historic districts designated at the request of the property owner include the Peck Block Historic District, the American Seating Factory Complex Historic District, the Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant Historic District, the Aldrich Building Historic District, the Metal Office Furniture Factory (Steelcase Plant #2) Historic District, the Century Furniture Factory Historic District, and the Berkey & Gay Furniture Factory Historic District. All of these buildings have been rehabilitated and now provide housing, as well as commercial and office space. Along with the larger historic districts, they serve as examples of the vital role that historic preservation has played in the economic revitalization of Grand Rapids.

Heritage Hill Historic District.The current Historic Districts Act works – not only in Grand Rapids, but across Michigan. It is a fine example of a people-powered movement. Thousands of hours of volunteer work and personal investment over the past 50 years to save our historic buildings and to revitalize our city’s economy prove that historic preservation is a successful tool.

My father often said, “Nothing dies harder than a bad idea” — Rep. Afendoulis has a very bad idea.  His bad idea should disappear, not our historic districts.