Decision on Historic District Pushed Off to April

Thursday, February 28, 2019, 7:01 am
By: 
Dan Totzkay

Above: The West Village condos on the southwest edge of the Oakwood Historic District.

East Lansing City Council will not take formal action on proposed changes to the Oakwood Historic District boundaries until its meeting on April 9 at the earliest. That means the putting-off of another key step related to the Royal Vlahakis Park Place proposal, which would require demolition of a group of houses currently in the Oakwood Historic District.

At this week’s meeting of Council, Mayor Mark Meadows proposed deferring decision-making on changes to the historic district’s boundaries until a working session in which remaining questions could be better addressed. His proposal was supported in a 4-0 vote. (Council Member Ruth Beier was absent.)

At and in advance of Tuesday’s meeting, public opposition to expansion of the boundaries remained as strong as before, and Council members raised a number of questions regarding the boundary changes. Some of those related to questions and criticisms raised by the State Historic Preservation Office in a letter reviewing the local study.

Proposals for possible boundary changes:

The East Lansing Historic District Boundary Study Committee, a panel of four local experts and East Lansing residents, was commissioned to recommend whether the boundaries of the Oakwood Historic District should be changed.

Part of the impetus for the possible change to the boundaries has been the long-running desire by the City to see redevelopment of the properties owned by the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) on Evergreen Avenue, often called “the Evergreen properties.”

The Committee made a series of recommendations for Council to consider, recommendations that include the removal of some properties on the southern (Valley Court Park) side of the existing district, including the Evergreen properties, and the addition of others on the northern (Glencairn) side. The map below shows in orange the existing district, and the other colors show recommendations for removal or addition. (For a larger, clearer version, click here.)

Properties in designated East Lansing historic districts are restricted in terms of potential changes that would be visible from public streets. According to the City’s page on historic preservation, if alterations to a property in a district will be visible from a street, “construction or alteration is expected to be done in a historically appropriate manner” and “materials used for new construction should be compatible with existing, historic materials.”

In practice, that often means getting permission to replace windows, doors, roofs, and porches visible from the street, and ensuring that additions or subtractions to structures that are visible from the street be consistent with historic preservation standards.

State raises concerns about the committee’s report:

According to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), there are numerous problems with the report produced by the committee.

The SHPO says that insufficient information for historical context was provided with the proposed historic district boundary changes from the East Lansing committee. The Preservation Office notes what was provided as “historical context” was instead “more of a description of the district” and that there is “little history included in the report.”

The State’s comments continue that “[s]tudy committees are required to undertake intensive level survey” when addressing historic district boundaries and should provide a general summary of trends and patterns in East Lansing development.

The SHPO also disagreed with some exclusions proposed by the Committee. Namely, the SHPO believes excluding properties like those on Evergreen Avenue would lead to the deterioration of the surrounding properties given their exact location. For example, the Evergreen Avenue properties proposed to be removed are “in the middle of a block” and would thus affect other nearby properties.

Below: Houses in the Oakwood Historic District, all owned by the DDA along Evergreen Avenue.

The SHPO also objected to the removal of the relatively new West Village townhouse condos from the Oakwood Historic District, saying the suggestion to remove these represents “a red flag that something is amiss.”

The SHPO wrote about the West Village townhouses, “The massing and scale of this development is in keeping with the historic resources in the district. If these properties are removed then there will be no review by the historic district commission of any changes or new construction undertaken at the complex or its site. This could negatively impact the historic resources in the 300 and 400 bloc of Hillcrest as well as the setting and feeling of the historic Valley Court Park.”

Other concerns were related to the inaccurate naming of architectural styles and confusion over when certain houses were actually built.

Council has questions:

In addition to State-level concerns, Council had a number of questions that Members raised on Tuesday night. Many of those questions could not yet be answered, which was the reasoning behind Mayor Meadows’ motion to defer decision-making on this matter.

First and foremost, Meadows questioned whether the proper process for creating a final report from the Committee had been followed, noting the report Council had before it was not necessarily what the State considers a “final report.”

Meadows also said that the State statute may require Council to have approval from a majority of the property owners affected for a district to be created. Meadows noted this section of the law refers to the establishment of a new historic district, but he said he was not sure if this would apply to the current situation, where what is under consideration is expansion of an existing district.

Above: Mark Meadows and Aaron Stephens at the meeting.

Meadows also suggested exploring the possibility of designated “heritage neighborhoods,” which would have fewer restrictions to building changes than historic districts, but could provide for grant opportunities and the potential for property value increase.

Meadows also asked if East Lansing should form a standing committee for historic district boundary studies, suggesting this could be more effective than the “piecemeal” approach taken with this and past historic district study committees.

Council Members Shanna Draheim and Aaron Stephens raised questions about the Hannah Community Center being recommended for inclusion in the Historic District. Stephens noted that a committee is already in place for examining the future of the Hannah Community Center, and so, he suggested, the future of the building might be left to them and not be determined by the historic district limitations.

Draheim further noted that the recommendation to add the Hannah Community Center to the district was not particularly “energetic” and that, overall, they had not “heard overwhelming support for adding homes” to the district.

Above: Erik Altmann and Shanna Draheim at the meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann echoed similar sentiments, saying that residents not currently in the historic district appear to be interested in maintaining their properties without the pressure of historic districts. So, without residents “clambering to be included,” he said, it does not make sense to pursue adding homes to the district.

Altmann asked what type of evidence or analysis existed for the impact of a historic district designation on property values and how a change in designation might affect rental properties.

East Lansing Director of Planning, Building, and Development Tim Dempsey explained that many studies have been conducted on the impact of historic districts on property values, generally showing property value increase, but said he was not familiar with any specific to East Lansing. Dempsey also indicated, responding to Altmann’s questioning, that realtors had not been consulted on the impact to East Lansing properties.

Altmann also questioned who got or did not get notice of the Committee’s public hearing, which Eli reported on, and whether it was clear that individuals could object to their property being included.

Dempsey said that property owners in the current boundaries and those would be affected by the proposed expansion were notified, but it was not clear how educational the notice was. There was no formal asking of property owners whether they wanted in or out of the district.

City Council is expected to take up this issue again at the March 12 work session and the April 9 regular session.

 

 

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