Preserve or Redevelop? Historic District Dilemma Hangs Over Oakwood Neighborhood

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Monday, January 13, 2020, 7:30 am
By: 
Chris Gray

The Michigan State University Student Cooperative’s Phoenix House at 239 Oakhill Avenue. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

It’s a contentious issue that pits neighbor against neighbor: how to collectively preserve the historic character of the Oakwood neighborhood versus the right to develop one’s property with fewer government restrictions.

The East Lansing City Council is prepared to address the issue Tuesday evening at its discussion-only meeting, and then again on January 21 when a full vote on the matter appears likely.

  • The first recommendation put forward by City planning staff and captured in a draft boundary change called Ordinance 1446 would take out the West Village condo complex along the southwest side of Valley Court Park and remove some rental properties east of the park that the Downtown Development Authority owns and wants to redevelop to pay back $5.4 million in debt owed on them.
  • The second alternative, called Ordinance 1446a and favored by a 4-1 majority of the last Council in May 2019, would remove those properties and more, including Valley Court Park.
  • The third option, called 1446b and promoted more recently by Council member Mark Meadows, calls for removing all of that plus properties on the south side of Oakhilll Avenue, pushing the boundary significantly farther north than it currently is.

Council could also opt to take another approach or could opt to leave the current boundaries in place.

Below: The existing Oakwood Historic District, shown in green.

An Oakwood Historic Boundary Study Committee was formed in 2013 to consider revising the district’s boundaries. The neighborhood is one of East Lansing’s oldest: parts of it were platted as early as 1899. Most of the houses in the district date from the early 1900s when MSU was known as the Michigan Agricultural College.

The historic district was created in 1989 as a way to preserve its character and slow the rapid conversion of older homes into multi-unit student rentals.

Heather Miller’s home at 609 Sunset Lane.

J.J. Kidder, who lived on Sunset Lane, told Council last spring that removing the historic protections would allow property owners to tear down century-old garages in favor of unsightly parking decks. Kidder’s Sunset Lane neighbor, Heather Miller, said she “would be devastated” if any part of the district were removed, and that she had purposely “wanted to live in an area where my neighbors maintain these 100-year homes.”

The property owners who would like to reduce the boundaries of the historic district cite the higher cost of upkeep as well as their rights as private property owners.

“Our whole purpose is to provide affordable housing for the community,” said Holly Jo Sparks, the executive director of the MSU Student Housing Cooperative (above, 239 Oakhill Avenue). “Being in the district makes any repairs or renovations more expensive.”

Sparks said the cooperative would like to save money on renovations, window replacements and new siding without having to seek approval of materials from the Historic District Commission. She said when the co-op wanted to install double-pane windows to a house in the historic Bailey neighborhood, the public process took close to a year to get through the commission, and the wood windows had to be custom-manufactured.

“The historic district designation works against the ability to maintain and modernize the homes,” Sparks said.

Above: a student rental house in the Bailey neighborhood.

Above: A student rental house in the Oakwood neighborhood.

Valley Court properties under review

The Historic District Commission met last Thursday and voted unanimously to support an option that would keep the park and most of the adjacent properties in the district, but remove the DDA properties at the east end of the park, along with an adjoining 2006 rental building owned by landlord Matt Hagan, and the City-owned Parking Lot 15.

Historic District Commission Vice-Chair Diane Wing explained that this alternative would do the most to preserve the historic district while at the same time remove restrictions on the DDA properties.

Wing said Valley Court Park is an integral part of the Oakwood neighborhood.

“It’s really a focal point of the Oakwood Historic District, and it should be continued to be protected,” Wing said.

Wing said the commission did not consider removing the properties at the north end of the park, despite their owners’ desire to leave the district.

“These houses are contiguous to the rest of the neighborhood. They are actually in the middle of the neighborhood,” Wing said. “It’s not typical to remove a property just because a property owner wants it.”

Oakhill properties draw interest

Neither Sante Perrelli, who owns three properties in a row on the south side of Oakhill Ave., nor Sparks said they had immediate plans to substantially redevelop their properties.

“We regularly receive calls from big developers on the 239 Oakhill property,” Sparks said. “But the co-op is not in the business of selling off properties unless it furthers our mission. … The co-op has been around for fifty years and we want to be around another fifty — we are invested in this community.”

223 and 227 Oakhill Avenue: On the left (223) is the rental house Sante Perrelli owns, and on the right (227) is the house he owns and currently occupies. He also owns the vacant property between his house and the Phoenix Co-op.

Perrelli, who turned 66 this month, said he’d been a resident in Oakhill since 1983 and wanted to avoid animosity from his neighbors.

“I want my full bundle of sticks as a property owner,” said Perrelli, who owns and lives in a 1940s Cape Cod that he purchased in 2000. His Oakhill Avenue home with its slate sidewalk is perhaps the most carefully kept property on that street. He also owns the 1920 colonial house next-door, which he rents to students. “I want the full rights of the other properties on the perimeter of the park and a recognition of the changes to Oakhill that have taken place since the historic district was established.”

“I haven’t proposed any development,” said Perrelli. He also said he had defended the neighborhood against a bad development that was to be built on a narrow lot between his house and the co-op, and did not consider this to be hypocritical, now that he wants the ability to do something else with that property, which he bought and has kept as an empty lot. He promised reasonable planning, whatever he decides to do in the future.

“I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. We should not be pitting neighbor against neighbor.”

Council member Mark Meadows has expressed the most support for letting property owners out of the district, while other members, such as Lisa Babcock, want more information.

“I’m still learning about the issue,” Babcock said. “I’d encourage everyone who lives in the district and has an opinion to email me. I will be listening carefully Tuesday night.”

One of Perrelli’s neighbors, Barbara Bruce, empathized with his frustration at the restraints on changes and renovations, but suggested a compromise: loosen the Historic District Commission’s guidelines while still protecting the “flavor of the architecture.”

Resident Jim Robertson worried what unspoken designs may be in store for the park: “Valley Court Park is the property of the citizens of East Lansing.” He worried the city would get out of the requirement to ask voters to sell the park by agreeing to lease it to private interests, which the city has done for public property downtown.

Roberston said Michigan law did not give the city the right to randomly alter the district’s boundaries. “The act requires a defensible study as to why these properties should be removed,” he said.

Another neighbor opposing a sharp reduction in the district’s size, Ann Nichols, said she wouldn’t lose sleep if the district lost its fight over the integrity of the boundaries, but it was worth putting up a fuss.

“We bought a house here because it was in the historic district," Nichols said. "We love this old house. It destroys the feel of the whole thing if we look out our window and see a modern something,” Nichols said. “We don’t need to continue to destroy historic buildings. Once they destroy them, they’re gone.”

 

Disclosure: ELi has received financial support by many people who may be financially and personally affected by the decisions being made about the Oakwood Historic District boundary, including support from those on both sides of the debate over shrinking versus maintaining the boundaries. This includes Bruce, MIller, Robertson, Nichols, Kidder, Perrelli, and Hagan. ELi’s Publisher Alice Dreger owns a house in the district, as do many of ELi’s core editing and reporting staff members, and Dreger has been advocating for the group of homeowners who do not want the boundary moved north, except for the possible exception of removing the DDA’s properties from the district. Because she has taken on an advocacy position in this matter, she was not involved in the editing or publishing of this article. Dreger did, however, in conjunction with Natalie Rose, Associate Publisher, provide factual corrections post-publication as noted below.

Correction notice: This article was changed in the following ways after publication for purposes of correcting factual problems generated in the editing process: (1) The first sentence suggested that removing properties from a historic district would mean little or no governmental regulation. Removing the historic district designation would only remove restrictions on what property owners can do to some external elements of their properties without seeking approval. This sentence has been corrected. (2) The bulleted list of options was attributed to the Study Committee but they came not from the study but from staff and Council. This has been corrected. (3) The article said that the Historic District Commission "discussed" another option; in fact they voted unanimously to support another option, so this sentence has been amended. (4) The original implied that Sante Perrelli purchased his home in 1983, before the District went into effect; the article now notes he purchased that property in 2000, about a decade after it went into effect. Additionally, the quotes from Ann Nichols and Jim Robertson were dropped due to an editing error and have now been added.

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