Opinions Vary on Value of East Lansing’s Historic Districts

Friday, April 5, 2019, 8:15 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: 220 Oakhill Avenue, a rental house currently in the Oakwood Historic District.

Is it time to get rid of the historic districts in East Lansing? Some members of City Council are suggesting it may be – while members of East Lansing’s Historic District Commission say that Council’s comments indicate a lack of understanding of the districts’ value.

Next Tuesday, City Council will take up the question of whether to change the boundaries of one specific district – the Oakwood Historic District. Council could decide to expand that district, pull properties out of it, or hold off on a decision.

Council has heard from many homeowners in the Glencairn community that they don’t want to be absorbed into the Oakwood district. It seems very unlikely Council will expand the district.

In fact, based on comments made at meetings, it appears that a majority of Council – Ruth Beier, Erik Altmann, and Mark Meadows – are interested in going in the opposite direction. At Council’s March 12 work session, Beier and Altmann suggested the districts may be impeding improvement and development in key areas such that maybe it’s time to eliminate some or all.

Director of Planning Tim Dempsey told Council at the March 12 meeting that “development pressures” are a reason to consider changing historic district boundaries. He indicated that developers are interested in replacing existing structures (mostly one-family houses being used as student rentals) with denser, more modern commercial properties.

Below: Rental houses in the College Grove Historic District, just north of downtown.

Dempsey named M.A.C. Avenue in the Bailey neighborhood and the Harrison Road area near Chesterfield Hills and south Glencairn and as being of interest to developers.

The impetus for changing the Oakwood Historic District boundaries has been the City’s long-running interest in developing properties along Evergreen Avenue (below). The current proposal for those properties includes a 12-story building with a multiplex theater.

In practice, removal of properties from historic districts means that property owners are no longer restricted by aesthetic and preservation rules. Major changes only need follow existing zoning rules, and materials are not restricted in the zoning code the way they are under historic district rules.

Historic district boundaries affect not only property owners in the districts, but those who live nearby.

In 2017, homeowners in south Glencairn who are not in a historic district strongly objected to a proposal to construct a new sorority where three rental houses now exist in the Collegeville Historic District across the street from south Glencairn homes (like those shown below). Having the rental houses in the Collegeville Historic District just south of these homes made it more difficult for the developer to move forward.

At the March 12 meeting, Altmann said his view is that “we need a bigger downtown. We need to grow it out.” He views rental properties in historic districts as potential barriers to growing East Lansing’s downtown, saying “we need to be thinking of the whole belt that surrounds downtown.”

Meadows suggested that if there are particular properties worthy of preservation of protection, they could be declared landmark properties or named “heritage neighborhoods” while allowing other property owners to do what they want with their properties in those areas, within zoning rules.

Beier, who owns a home in the Oakwood Historic District, said that she believes that rental overlay districts, like one that covers part of the Oakwood Historic District, will protect homeowners in those areas if the historic district is eliminated. She said rental overlay districts “achieved the same purpose, so you don’t really need both.”

But they aren’t the same in purpose or effect. Dempsey explained that historic districts provide “protect[ion] against property deterioration” by requiring property owners, including landlords, to maintain houses, garages, and other structures in keeping with the historic district rules.

He noted that whereas overlays restrict the use of the property (by stopping conversion to rentals), historic districts restrict the appearances and form of a property. In the districts, homeowners and landlords are required to maintain properties in a way that are preserved from a historic aesthetic standpoint.

Below: a rental house recently improved in the Oakwood Historic District, in keeping with the historic preservation rules.

But, Dempsey said, some maintenance costs more under the historic district rules.

Beier said she has found keeping up the wood siding on her house to be expensive and onerous. She wants to be able to replace it with vinyl siding.

She also said she believes houses may be more likely to convert from rentals to owner-occupied if they are not in historic districts. She asked “whether or not it makes sense to have [historic] districts at all.”

Altmann said he would like data on the possible economic impact on property values from elimination of districts. He said he would be interested in the likelihood that rental properties would convert to owner-occupied.

In response, Dempsey said that studies done on historic districts in other communities show economic values of districts. He suggested that knowing what might happen in East Lansing would require external expertise on real estate markets.

Meadows indicated he wants to see all of Evergreen Avenue south of Oakhill Avenue and the south side of Oakhill Avenue removed from the Oakwood Historic District to allow development to occur there. He also wants to see the community center in Valley Court Park removed from the historic district so that property can see redevelopment.

Beier suggested removing the north side of Oakhill Avenue from the district might also be a good idea to allow redevelopment. (The lead photo on this article includes a house on the north side of Oakhill Avenue.)

Asked about the rental market, Dempsey said that the older houses are “still in high demand” from renters, even with a lot of modern apartment buildings going up around town.

Below: a mix of rental houses and owner-occupied houses on Forest Street in the Oakwood Historic District.

Council Member Shanna Draheim was absent from the March 12 meeting. Council Member Aaron Stephens said at that meeting that his main concern was “what the residents want.”

In preparation for Tuesday’s meeting, Stephens posted a note on Facebook and has been knocking on doors in the Glencairn area to ask what residents there want. Reached by phone, Stephens told ELi yesterday he plans to expand his door-knocking into the Oakwood Historic District this weekend, and encourages anyone with an opinion on this issue to contact him.

Two days after the Council discussion, the Historic District Commission met.

Commission members expressed frustration on multiple points, including that staff had not alerted them that Council would be discussing the matter at the March 12 work session and that Beier, who is the designated Council liaison to the Historic District Commission, doesn’t attend their meetings and doesn’t seem to understand the purpose and rules of the districts.

Commissioner Diane Wing said it is wrong to assume “that historic districts preclude development.” She pointed out that redevelopment has occurred within historic districts. In such circumstances, redevelopment is required to be approved at an additional level.

Wing pointed out that the West Village condo development (shown above) was built within the Oakwood Historic District in 2006. That project included demolition of two old houses and was seen as worthy of approval because the design well-complemented older houses in the neighborhood.

Commissioner Aron Sousa said that historic districts are “a smart planning tool” and “not a hindrance to future development.” Sousa said, “In our neighborhood [Oakwood], most of the rental houses are well-maintained, better than in the couch-burning district farther east.” He was referring to the area in Bailey where rental houses have been remodeled without consideration for historic aesthetics.

Commission Chair Jessica Flores specifically objected to any conflation of historic districts and rental overlay districts. She said she would plan to speak to Council on Tuesday, April 9.

Want to weigh in? You can speak at City Council’s meeting at the start of the meeting and contact Council through email. You can also:

  • see a map of the historic district here.
  • see the City's page on "living in a historic district" here;
  • see our last report on the Oakwood Historic District boundary discussions here;
  • see the boundary study committee's report here;
  • see the State Historic Preservation Officer's criticisms of the report here.

 

Disclosure: Alice Dreger owns a house with Aron Sousa (her spouse) in the Oakwood Historic District. They are close neighbors of Ruth Beier and donated $500 to Beier’s 2013 City Council campaign. ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols and regular reporters Chris Root, Karessa Wheeler, Ken Sperber, and Val Thonger also own homes in the Oakwood Historic District. ELi has received donations from many individuals with properties potentially effected by Council’s decisions about historic districts, including homeowners, landlords, and commercial property owners in Glencairn, Oakwood, Bailey, Chesterfield Hills, and College Grove.

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