Council Votes 4-1 to Shrink Historic District in Preparation for Redevelopment

Thursday, May 9, 2019, 8:57 am
By: 
Dan Totzkay

Above: The home of Heather Miller, who came to Council to ask that the boundaries be preserved.

East Lansing’s City Council has voted 4-1 in favor of shrinking the Oakwood Historic District, including by removing all of Valley Court Park. The move comes in preparation for expected redevelopment of properties on Evergreen Avenue and in the park.

The vote this week, with Shanna Draheim as the lone dissent, instructed City staff to prepare an ordinance that, if implemented, will remove several publicly- and privately-owned land parcels from the Oakwood Historic District. That ordinance vote is likely to happen on May 14.

Until then, the change is not official.

After hearing public comment, Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann proposed the changes, which were all marked on a map that had been added to the agenda just before the meeting started.

The map below is an annotation of that map, showing the existing boundaries marked in lighter red. The area bordered in white is what City staff added to what a study committee recommended for possible removal.

The darker red line, above the light-shaded area, shows where the southern boundary will now be, if Council officially follows through with an ordinance that matches this week’s 4-1 vote.

Properties marked for removal include:

  • the whole of Valley Court Park, including the Valley Court Community Center at 201 Oakhill Avenue;
  • the properties owned by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) at 328, 334, and 340 Evergreen Avenue;
  • 404 Evergreen Avenue, a student rental property owned by Matt Hagan;
  • City-owned Parking Lot 15 on Abbot Road and the land parcel connected it to Evergreen Avenue, currently occupied by steps leading up to the parking lot;
  • the West Village condos, which wrap around Grand River Avenue and up Hillcrest Avenue;
  • the West Village condo apartment building at 341 Oakhill Avenue.

These are shown more clearly in the following map:

Altmann, who made the motion to make these changes, called this area “a slight superset” of what the Oakwood Historic District Boundary Study Committee had recommended.

Altmann indicated that including City-owned properties within Valley Court Park would give the City more flexibility and cost-savings, because Council would not have to go through the Historic District Commission for changes they want to enact.

City Council is considering what to do with the old substation building in Valley Court Park, below. It needs expensive repairs if it is to be kept. Council also is looking to possibly replace the Valley Court Park community center with something else.

Altmann also said that inclusion of the DDA properties on Evergreen Avenue will allow for easier marketing of the properties in the event the Royal Vlahakis project does not pan out. Again, Council won’t have to get Historic District Commission approval to do whatever it ultimately wants to do there if those properties are removed.

Echoing past comments from himself and Council member Ruth Beier, Altmann said he wants it to be “as easy as possible for developers to imagine what they can do” with the Evergreen Avenue properties, and that the Boundary Study Committee had not been focused on financial concerns as Council must be.

The likely reductions to the Historic District do not reflect a number of requests made to Council, including two sets of requests by those who wanted their properties taken out and several requests by Oakwood and Glencairn homeowners who asked that Council make no reductions at all.

The MSU Student Cooperative came to Council to request that their Phoenix House, located at 239 Oakhill Avenue, be removed. The current plan is to keep in that property (shown below), which means the coop will have to keep following the Historic District rules.

Sante Perrelli, who owns three properties on Oakhill Avenue just east of the coop, also asked that his three properties be taken out. Perrelli owns an empty lot (231 Oakhill), the lot with his house on it (227 Oakhill), and the lot next door (223 Oakhill), which has a house that Perrelli rents to students (shown below).

The lot at 231 Oakhill originally had an owner-occupied house on it, but it burned down years ago. Subsequently, local-landlord developer Matt Hagan wanted to build a rental house there, to be licensed for four unrelated person. Perrelli and the neighborhood fought Hagan's plan successfully.

Perrelli then bought the land, which he says he now may want to redevelop along with the other two properties. If Council removes his Historic District properties – which they are currently not planning to do – he could demolish his house, shown to the right below, and the rental house, shown to the left, and redevelop the land without Historic District Commission approval. Otherwise he would have to get approval.

This week, Perrelli told Council that, in his opinion, Historic District guidelines have not promoted aesthetic protection or property security especially on Oakhill Avenue. He said that Council should consider properties on his street differently than elsewhere in the Historic District.

In a continuing show of overall neighborhood opposition to any changes to the Oakwood Historic District, several homeowners spoke to Council at this week’s meeting to ask that no reductions to the District be made.

Robert Mavrogordato, who lives on Rosewood Avenue on the Glencairn side of the Oakwood Historic District border, said he appreciates how well-maintained the rental and owner-occupied homes are in Oakwood, due to the Historic District requirements that properties be maintained in terms of historical features visible from the street.

He said he believes that the Historic District creates a “buffer” and “protects other neighborhoods like Glencairn that are mostly owner-occupied.” He said he pays almost $10,000 a year in property taxes on his home (above) and expects that means integrity of homes and properties is being maintained. Properties now slated for removal are two blocks from his house.

Heather Miller said she specifically bought her house (below) in Oakwood, on Sunset Lane, one block north of Phoenix Coop, because she “wanted to live in an area where [her] neighbors maintain these 100-year-old homes in the aesthetic we have come to appreciate.” She said that many family members and friends remark on the beauty of Sunset Lane and how the historic aesthetic has been maintained, especially so close to student housing.

She continued that she “ would be devastated” and that her investment in her East Lansing home would be “negatively impacted if any part of the Oakwood neighborhood would be removed from the Historic District or if the rental overlay districts were eliminated.”

Another resident, Gina Shireman, who also lives on Sunset Lane, said she moved to Oakwood Historic District because she and her family wanted something with “soul” and said she wants to “maintain the character of our community.” She said she believes keeping the Historic District intact helps to preserve a chosen way of life and financial investment in their home (below).

Oakwood homeowner Dylan Miner also spoke, sharing that his family had previously lived in the Bailey neighborhood, but moved to Sunset Lane (to the house shown below) after dense student housing had been put in across the street from him. Miner said he was “afraid [of] what will happen” if the Historic District is shrunk, especially after his experience in Bailey.

A student rental house stands directly behind his home. The student rentals have been maintained under the Historic District rules.

Last, Barbara Bruce, a lifelong resident of East Lansing and long-time Oakwood homeowner, shared her experience of living on the edge of the Historic District, also near student rentals and a block north of Perrelli’s properties. She said there is a great deal of turnover with rentals, which translates to limited investment in the neighborhood. She said that students frequently damage her and neighbors’ property. (Her house is shown below.)

Bruce said that Historic District guidelines helped to “control” a natural stage young people go through when “let loose” for the first time, for some. Bruce said she can “appreciate the frustration” of wanting to make changes or renovations and having constraints, but suggested a compromise in how Historic District guidelines are defined so that the “flavor of the architecture” is maintained while changes are easier to make.

In proposing the to-be drafted ordinance, Altmann said he didn’t think removing the marked properties would affect any “buffers” between student life and homeowners. Council member Aaron Stephens agreed.

But Council member Shanna Draheim said she was not in support of the proposed ordinance, especially because of the proposed removal of Valley Court Park and Community Center without having invited or received public input on that. The community center is shown on the right, below, and the West Village condo apartment building (also slated for removal) on the left.

Draheim was in support of removing the three DDA-owned properties (328, 334, and 340 Evergreen Avenue), as staff said that redevelopment had previously been okayed by the Historic District Commission for those properties.

Draheim also emphasized that, while Historic Districts cannot necessarily prevent the spread of rental properties, they do protect the character of a neighborhood. She said that “there can be mixes of houses that aren’t in and of themselves terribly historically valuable, but the overall feel of a neighborhood” is what the Historic District protects.

She continued that she wanted to approach Historic District boundary changes in the most conservative, smallest way possible at this juncture. She was the lone vote against the changes proposed by Altmann.

Council Member Ruth Beier, who voted in favor of the changes without commenting, lives in the Oakwood Historic District.

Mayor Mark Meadows said the ordinance would be on the agenda in two weeks for a vote, although City Manager George Lahanas’ response suggested that preparing the legal ordinance may take longer.

Responding to concerns by Stephens and Draheim, who wanted more public input, Meadows said the ordinance would be on Council’s Business Agenda and not Consent Agenda, suggesting that more public comment and discussion will be allowed.

Council has a discussion-only meeting set for next Tuesday at 7 p.m., where public comment on this matter can also be offered.

 

Alice Dreger contributed reporting on this report, specifically on the history of 231 Oakhill Avenue.

Disclosure: ELi has received financial support by many people who may be financially and personally affected by the decisions being made on the Oakwood Historic District, including those on both sides of the debate over shrinking versus maintaining the boundaries. ELi’s Publisher Alice Dreger owns a house in the district, as do many of ELi’s core editing and reporting staff members.

Note: This article was corrected at 6:45 p.m. on May 9 to note that the map area marked in white was what City staff added to the boundary study committee's recommendation.

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