Battle lines drawn over Michigan historic districts

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield stands in the former Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center, slated for demolition but given new life as part of a $37 million future development.

A pair of bills in Lansing that would take a sledgehammer to the state’s historic district law have ignited a fierce statewide debate.

Many preservationists say it is the most serious threat to historic districts since the state law was created in 1970. Supporters of the proposed legislation counter the current law has been hijacked by bureaucrats and robs property owners of their rights.

A new draft of the measure was introduced Wednesday in a committee of the Michigan House of Representatives. The companion Senate bill is expected to soon follow suit. It’s not clear if the measures will make it to a full vote in either the House or Senate, but that hasn’t stopped the rancor.

“I have been compared to the Taliban,” said state Rep. Chris Afendoulis, the west Michigan Republican who sponsored the House bill. The companion piece was introduced by state Sen. Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford.


“Our goal is not to hurt historic preservation but to protect local property owners,” Afendoulis said. Proponents contend they are “modernizing” the original 1970 bill that created historic districts.

Few on the other side believe that argument. Packed public meetings, social media debate and a deluge of telephone calls and emails to politicians have occurred from Mackinac Island to Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Monroe and other communities in Oakland, Washtenaw and Kalamazoo counties.

“This is the most serious threat to historic preservation in Michigan since the local historic districts were enacted,” said James Turner, a Detroit resident and adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “It is not just neighborhoods, but even the ongoing redevelopment of downtown Detroit benefits from historic districts.”

Peter MacGregor

Historic districts are a popular way to protect notable neighborhoods, homes, skyscrapers, industrial buildings and other sites such as parks. Once a historic district is created, it’s tough to demolish a structure. When changes are made, modifications usually must adhere to strict guidelines aimed at preserving the original character of the building or place.

There are 78 historic districts in Michigan, encompassing about 20,000 homes. Advocates point to data that show historic districts pay off big in terms of real estate value.

But some Republicans say historic districts have become blunt instruments. They say such districts handcuff the rights of property owners and give too much power to unelected officials.

“The system is broken,” said Kent County Republican chairman John Inhulsen, who supports the proposed changes.

“You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who doesn’t support historic preservation,” Inhulsen said. “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.”

The bills in Lansing would make sweeping changes to the current historic district law.

Among the changes:

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

■The bills would require 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 no longer have to follow the federal standards of what is historic. Local historic district commissions use federal 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 could be allowed.

The Detroit City Council is among several local government bodies that have passed resolutions denouncing the measures in the Legislature, contending they will deny communities a key economic tool that protects local cultural legacy.

“I have gotten tons of emails, tons of phone calls from residents who oppose this bill,” said Detroit Councilwoman Mary Sheffield. She represents some of Detroit’s most well-known neighborhoods that have historic district status: Indian Village, Boston-Edison, West Village and the Mies van der Rohe homes in Lafayette Park.

Sheffield also represents historic Brush Park, and she points to the former Brewster-Wheeler Recreation Center there as an example of the power of historic districts. The building is a former Andrew Carnegie-built library that was slated for demolition.

She and other city officials used historic district protections to delay the demolition. It gave them time to find a new life for the building where boxer Joe Louis trained. It’s now part of a $37 million future development, which will include nearby residential and retail.

The former rec center will become a restaurant with a rooftop beer garden, a basement bar, event space and offices for nonprofit groups.

Photos are of Detroit Council Member Mary Sheffield at the remains of the Brewster Wheeler Recreation Center in Detroit, February 22, 2016. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

“That’s the real power of historic districts,” Sheffield said. “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.”

Afendoulis and other supporters of the bills say the goal is to not make it easier to destroy historic places and things, but to give property owners more say in the process.

It’s part of a Republican campaign being waged in several states, including Wisconsin, where similar legislation has passed. In Utah, similar legislation has been introduced.

On Wednesday, Afendoulis introduced a new draft of the measure that he hopes will tamp down some of the criticism. The new draft gets rid of the requirement that every new historic district be approved by a municipal-wide vote. It requires approval by two-thirds of property owners in that district. The new draft also eliminates a 10-year “sunset” provision that would have required renewal by voters every decade.

But the latest draft adds the provision that two-thirds of the local government body must approve any district, giving it veto power.

The latest version of the bill hasn’t softened the criticism.

“He has made it even worse by adding an additional two-third vote,” said Nancy Finegood, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Historic Preservation Network. “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.”