State Legislation Could Undo EL Historic Districts

Friday, February 12, 2016, 10:50 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: A typical streetscape in the Oakwood Historic District, showing both owner-occupied and rental houses.

East Lansing’s designated historic districts could be undone if Michigan House Bill (HB) 5232 passes. Following the lead of other Michigan cities like Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, the City of East Lansing is gearing up to fight back to retain local control of its historic districts, even while some believe the districts impede productive redevelopment in East Lansing and elsewhere.

According to a recent analysis of the proposed legislation for East Lansing’s City Council by City Attorney Tom Yeadon, “many of these provisions [in the bill] are designed to make it very difficult to establish new historic districts and to add properties to existing ones. It also appears the intent is to do away with existing historic districts by requiring an election with majority approval [of City voters] every 10 years simply to retain existing ones.”

Yeadon adds, “The fact that [if the legislation passes] communities have to wait until the general election just before the district would otherwise dissolve appears to be intended to create pitfalls for unwary municipalities.”

The Michigan Historic Preservation Network says the bill will “jeopardize historic resources” in Michigan by “allowing local legislative bodies to eliminate local historic districts without guidelines or justification, and without community input.”

Because the bill proposes requiring a 2/3 majority of property owners in a district to be in favor of historic district status, in some historic districts in East Lansing, that would require that landlords—whose properties outnumber owner-occupied houses—to be in favor of maintaining historic districts, something that seems unlikely given landlords’ business interests.

Some fear this could cause economic destabilization of older urban neighborhoods, while others argue it’s time for less fettered redevelopment of those “historic” neighborhoods.

Currently East Lansing has six designated Historic Districts, including districts called Bailey, Chesterfield Hills, College Grove, Collegeville, Hillcrest Village, and Oakwood. The districts are not the same as the neighborhoods that sometimes share their names, but are, rather, designated areas in which special permission is required for some exterior changes to properties contained therein.

East Lansing’s districts were established in areas that were experiencing rapid conversion from older, mostly owner-occupied housing to student rentals. For properties in the designated districts, East Lansing’s Historic District Commission “reviews proposed alterations and additions to the exterior of structures.” The Historic District Commission also “provides educational materials and programs on preservation principles and practices. Members include one registered architect and four residents of designated historic districts.”

The Commission discussed this legislation at its meeting last night and is preparing to recommend to City Council that it push back against this legislation. East Lansing’s City Council has not yet taken a stand on the matter, but according to City Planning Director Tim Dempsey, the City’s lobbyist “has conveyed the City’s opposition to the bill.”

 

Disclosure: The author lives in and owns a house in an East Lansing Historic District and her spouse and property co-owner, Aron Sousa, serves on the East Lansing Historic District Commission.

 

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