Objections Raised to Expansion of Historic District Boundaries

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Sunday, December 2, 2018, 6:25 am
Dan Totzkay

Above: An owner-occupied home in the Oakwood Historic District in warmer times.

This past Wednesday’s special public hearing on the possible redrawing of the Oakwood Historic District boundaries brought forward criticisms of possible expansion, of inadequate notice of the proposed changes, and of the difficulty some have faced trying to access information.

A number of homeowners and landlords whose properties could be affected by the proposed boundary changes spoke at the hearing, with two others writing in letters. Strong concern was voiced especially to proposed additions to the north and west of the existing historic district.

The public hearing was hosted by the East Lansing Historic District Boundary Study Committee, a panel of four local experts and East Lansing residents commissioned to recommend whether the boundaries of the Oakwood Historic District should be changed. The four are Amanda Harrell-Seyburn, Dan Bollman, Jim Robertson, and Doug Jester. (Robertson was not present at the meeting.) Bollman chaired the meeting.

The Committee has made recommendations for Council to consider, recommendations that include the removal of some properties on the southern (Valley Court Park) side of the existing district, and the addition of others on the northern (Glencairn) side. The map below shows in orange the existing district.

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, property owners in historic districts must obtain staff or Historic District Commission permission to alter porches, windows, front walkways, and roofs, as well as the front and sides of structures that are visible from the street.

The general sentiment about proposed additions to the historic district was shared by a property owner, Arthur Slabosky, who wrote a letter to the committee to object to anything other than publicly-owned properties being included. Slabosky called the historic district regulations “excessive” and said that “private citizens own those homes and they should be able to do what they want with them.”

Dave Houston, a resident who spoke at the public hearing, said he was “deeply offended” at the notion of someone telling him what he can and cannot do with his house.

Several potentially-affected owners said they would not have bought their homes if they were to be designated as being within a historic district. Cynthia Sabin, a resident who wrote a letter to the committee, said she “specifically chose to avoid historic districts when [she] bought [her] house.” Another resident, Mark Kielhorn, shared a similar sentiment about his property, believing he could not have made the changes he has made had his property been designated as part of a historic district.

Below: A rental house in the Oakwood Historic District, fixed up recently with review by the Historic District Commission.

Those who spoke at the hearing indicated the only notice of their properties being affected was in the announcement of the hearing itself. For instance, landlord Matt Hagan of East Lansing-based Hagan Reality, owner of 404 Evergreen indicated he only saw his property was recommended for removal from the district when he read the notice of this public hearing.

The rental apartment building at 404 Evergreen Avenue (shown below) was built in 2006 after the pre-existing structure on the property was destroyed by fire. When Hagan built what is there now, he had to negotiate through many rounds with the Historic District Commission. He stressed that he never spoke with the current study committee about having his property removed and was unsure if it was a positive or negative to be removed now.

There was also concern over the difficulty of accessing the report itself.

Jim Croom, a Glencairn resident, landlord of an Oakwood Historic District rental house, and member of the East Lansing Downtown Development Authority (DDA), said in public comment that he had difficulty finding the report and was only able to read it because ELi had shared it.

Croom also said he thinks there is no compelling reason to expand the historic district at this time. He explained that the way districts were set up was political, trying to slow down the expansion of student housing in East Lansing neighborhoods. Croom does not think that is needed now.

Speaking to the criteria the committee said it used to determine which properties should be designated “historic,” Croom noted that much of the housing in other East Lansing neighborhoods not included in historic districts looks very similar to houses included in the Oakwood Historic District.

Below: a map showing historic districts in East Lansing. For a larger view, click here.

No members of the public spoke or wrote in to the committee in support of their properties being added to the Oakwood Historic District. Chief among the concerns about being in the historic district was the owners’ ability to update or repair their properties.

Bollman noted the purpose of this restriction is to avoid adverse effects to the character-defining features of a property, adding that his role as an architect is to balance the needs and desires of property owners with zoning ordinances and other regulations, like those associated with a historic district. The idea of designating historic districts is to preserve a general look of an area with architectural significance when viewed historically.

There was some disagreement at the hearing as to how much the restrictions impact owners’ ability to repair, renovate, and modify their properties.

At the hearing, Alice Dreger, a twenty-year resident of a 1923 house (shown below) on Sunset Lane in the Oakwood Historic District, shared her experience with renovating parts of her property, including parts that were affected and unaffected by historic district standards. (Disclosure: Dreger is the Publisher of ELi, and most of the people who spoke up in conjunction with this hearing plus the four committee members have donated to ELi at some time.)

Sharing that she had had substantial renovations completed on the interior and exterior of her house, including expanding her garage and adding a front porch rail as required by her insurance company, Dreger said she found that working in line with historic district guidelines has not been onerous. She stated that the Historic District Commission– which currently includes her husband, Aron Sousa – works with residents to ensure desired updates can be carried out.

Dreger also shared that her family and neighbors have invested large amounts of money they have in their homes because they know the neighborhood, which is heavy with student rental houses, is protected by the Historic District restrictions.

At the same time, Dreger said, other neighborhoods, like Glencairn to the north, have different characters and different community desires, so the historic district demands and protections might not be really relevant for them. She said she could well understand why others would not want to be added to the district now, particularly given that Glencairn doesn’t seem to need the special protection Oakwood does.

Below: Marshall Street in the Oakwood Historic District, which includes a mix of rental and owner-occupied houses

Sante Perelli is an Oakwood Historic District homeowner who also owns a rental house to one side of him and a vacant lot to the other, all on the edge of the historic district, on the ridge on Oakhill Drive above Valley Court Park. He told the committee that his properties were included in the historic district since the 1980s and said he now wished they would be taken out.

Noting that his properties were close to the Park District and potential Park Place redevelopments, Perelli believes having his properties remain in the historic district will hold back his ability to keep up with other redevelopments. He thinks that if other properties around the park are to no longer be historic to make way for new developments, his properties should be freed of restriction as well.

Perelli stressed that, unlike other historic district properties, his properties would also be included in the proposed form-based zoning ordinance, tying his hands even further. Perelli further noted that his properties do not fit the nature of other historic-designated properties as two are surrounded by high-density student housing and the other is a vacant lot.

Bert Seyfarth, a local architect, shared during public comment that he stopped working in the historic districts because he believed the restrictions compromised owners’ desires. Seyfarth said such restrictions and their expansion are “backward thinking” and that neighborhoods should not be treated like static museums.

Seyfarth also indicated the City had been able to ignore historic district guidelines in the past for its own properties, while forcing private owners to follow them.

This sentiment was echoed by Glencairn resident and Downtown Development Authority Chair Peter Dewan, who felt the City should be held to the same standards as residents, and who noted there is now reconstruction of five new schools by the school district rather than renovation or adaptation of older buildings.

Dewan, who does not own property affected by the recommended changes, stated that it seemed somewhat arbitrary to choose parts of the city where owners can and cannot make changes to structures without special permission.

Bollman explained that properties were chosen to be added to or removed from the historic district based on relatively objective criteria. Historic preservation experts are interested, he explained, in whether the style a house or collective group of houses is representative of a style of at least 50 years ago.

The properties that were included in the recommended expansion of the Oakwood Historic District – including the Hannah Community Center (above) – fit the stated criteria, according to Bollman. If properties currently included were found to not fit the criteria – such as Hagan’s property that had been rebuilt in 2006 – they were typically recommended for removal.

The criteria used can be found on page 18 of the committee’s report.

What happens next?

East Lansing’s City Council will next vote, probably at their December 4 meeting, on setting a public hearing in the future on this matter.

After that public hearing, Council can vote (by simple majority) to accept all, some, or none of the committee’s recommendations and could also vote to amend any of the recommendations they do choose to accept. In other words, a majority of Council can do what it wants from here in terms of altering the boundaries.

Darcy Schmitt, Senior Planner with the City of East Lansing Planning & Zoning, noted that the public will be able to comment at that hearing and can make a case for whether or not their properties should be included in the historic district. She said that, typically, resident testimony weighs heavily on Council’s decision-making.

Schmitt expects the hearing in early January. She said she expects Council will make a decision at the meeting that includes the public hearing.

While the study committee did not recommend the DDA’s Evergreen Avenue properties (shown below) be removed from the Oakwood Historic District, Planning staff has long been interested in removing those properties to allow for redevelopment, in part because they are saddled with about $5.6 million in debt.

The just-fully-approved Park District redevelopment, which was once going to include those properties, now does not. Dewan, as Chair of DDA, has been working with City Planning staff on a different project for those properties, known as Park Place. Developers for that project want to build a 12-story building where the rental houses now stand.

Written communications to Council can be sent by email to council@cityofeastlansing.org.


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Correction: This article originally indicated that Arthur Slabosky owns property in the area recommended for new inclusion in the district. This was based on a typo in his letter to the committee. His house is not in the area under consideration.


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