Last week saw Lansing take up bills for a “Historic District Modernization Act”, as well as CityLab weigh in on historic districts’ role in driving up housing prices and limiting affordability. In this context, we can revisit the role of local historic districts in placemaking.  (Spoiler: they’re an important tool!)

Since about 1970, when the Federal and state historic preservation statutes were enacted, 78 cities around Michigan have created districts to support their historic neighborhoods. These efforts provided property owners in those areas a stable and predictable context for investment, often allowing blighted or long-neglected areas to become, over time, some of our communities’ most sought-after neighborhoods. The combination of expertise and oversight provided by Historic District Commissions and staff, as well as Federal tax credits (and state credits, until recently), laid the foundations for these efforts.

Grand Rapids' Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment.

Grand Rapids’ Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment. (Photo courtesy East Hills Council of Neighbors)

I’ve previously written on Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill and East Hills neighborhoods, which offer great examples of how historic districts support placemaking.  In 1992, residents of the Cherry Hill area of the east hills began the process of forming a district as part of their fight against blight, crime, and absentee property owners. A walk through the neighborhood today, just over two decades later, shows how the district has contributed to creating a great neighborhood that anchors the Wealthy Street and Cherry Street commercial districts. While work definitely remains to be done, many of the homes have been brought back from the brink of destruction by fire or neglect, creating the physical fabric that supports close relationships between neighbors.

The significance is not just aesthetic, but economic. During the real estate roller coaster of the last 10 years, Zillow reports this neighborhood’s average home value has increased by 25%, while the average home value in Grand Rapids as a whole remains 7% below 2006 levels. In the Fairmount Square portion of the East Hills—where another historic district was established in 1999, following Cherry Hill’s example—the economics were strong enough to support the construction of 35 condo townhomes during the middle of the recession, in coordination with the rehabilitation of the adjacent DA Blodgett Home for Children. The success of these neighborhoods for both residents and businesses show how historic districts support economic development efforts—in buildings both new and old.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids' Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids’ Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

The Grand Rapids examples also show the weakness in CityLab’s critique.  While that piece targets local historic districts as tools to exclude lower-income residents—and uses an image from the Heritage Hill district to illustrate “pretty house” preservation—that neighborhood hosts Grand Rapids’ densest and most diverse set of housing options.  The home pictured sits on a block whose housing ranges from beautiful historic mansions to modest homes on postage stamp lots, alongside a mix of duplexes, townhomes, carriage barn apartments, and 8 story apartment buildings: hardly the exclusive enclave of single-family homes the author describes.

In this case, as in many of our cities, historic districts include and protect housing in a broad range of styles and price points. And, as the Fairmount Square development shows, can incorporate new development as well. While local districts can be used to reinforce exclusive zoning, they don’t necessarily do so, nor are they as much of a factor as single-family zoning standards, minimum lot sizes, or parking requirements. And to the CityLab concern about historic districts boosting property values, well, that was the hope of the Cherry Hill residents trying to build a neighborhood—bringing property values from the rock bottom of abandonment back up to something near the city and statewide averages.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

In many cases, our historic districts are pre-war neighborhoods that look a lot like the types of areas that we’ve talked about in our strategic placemaking efforts: small commercial areas with apartments (or the possibility of them) above business uses that front on the sidewalk, and neighborhoods of homes, apartment houses, and small apartment buildings adjacent.  Many of the buzzwords we use in our placemaking work—“compact, walkable mixed-use districts with high connectivity and missing middle housing options” (huh?)—are just a way of saying, “let’s build great new neighborhoods that look and function like these great old neighborhoods.”

In older communities across Michigan, taking care of the good places we already have is the easiest starting point for placemaking—and historic districts are an important foundation for that work.

knight-cities-challenge-logo-200x227The Knight Foundation has announced the finalists for this year’s Knight Cities Challenge–and the League’s idea – “Permit Corps” –  is among them!  With over 4,500 ideas submitted in the first round, the 158 finalists who have been invited to submit full proposals include 20 finalists from Detroit.  (We’re tied with Philadelphia for the largest number of finalists.)

The Permit Corps would be an intern or fellowship program that would place graduate students in a few neighborhoods in Detroit. They would serve as a combination of technical expert and patient advocate, helping residents and small business owners get projects done.

Maybe a small business owner needs a site plan to show zoning compliance for an expansion: an urban planning student from Wayne State or an architecture student from University of Detroit Mercy could help navigate the zoning ordinance and draft the site plan showing the relevant information. Perhaps a resident wants to renovate their home in a historic district: Eastern Michigan University has one of the country’s leading historic preservation programs, and a student from that program could help the resident evaluate their options and put together materials for the Historic District Commission. Maybe a Spanish-speaking resident wants help filling out permits in English–there are any number of ways that the Permit Corps might be able to help neighborhood residents take care of the paperwork so that they can take care of their projects, as well as easing the burden on city staff.

We’ve primarily targeted the Challenge’s goal of “expand economic opportunity” with this proposal: by providing technical capacity to neighborhood residents. We would complement the city’s own efforts to streamline their internal functions and broaden access to the formal process.

This idea stems in part from my own time in Ypsilanti City Hall, helping people through various city, county, and state permitting processes: no matter how much a city has done to make its processes easy, the zoning ordinance is still a legal document, and presenting to the Planning Commission or Historic District Commission can still be intimidating to people.

And that’s why the League chose to dive into the Challenge with this idea–we know we can’t possibly help every person who’s trying to make something happen in their piece of Detroit, but we hope to model a new interaction between residents and city processes that can be adopted not just across Detroit but in other Knight Cities–or by our communities across the state.

 

Last week I had the chance to check out progress on part of Kalamazoo’s PlacePlan: a “road diet” on a section of Portage Street, passing through the Edison neighborhood’s historic Washington Square district.

Portage Street had suffered the same fate as numerous urban roads: in the name of carrying the most cars at the fastest speed, the asphalt was widened over time until it squeezed the sidewalks up against the storefronts, contributing to the decline of the businesses in this area and the decay of the buildings.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortable close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortably close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

As a result of our work with Kalamazoo through the 2014 round of PlacePlans, the city has implemented a light-weight reconfiguration of Portage Street: it now has 3 lanes (one in each direction and a left turn lane) in place of 4.  This pulls traffic away from the curb, making the street less hostile to pedestrians, it pulls cars turning left out of the flow of traffic, reducing rear-end crashes, and it provides room for several blocks for a bike line connecting Washington Square to downtown.  Driving through the area at 5:15pm, when the pavement should be at its busiest, traffic was smooth and there were no significant delays, even though the change is still new and unfamiliar to drivers.

In the "trial" stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb--even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

In the “trial” stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb–even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

Right now, the change is a test–essentially just changing the paint and the traffic signal timing–but the city is planning to rebuild the street in a few years.  The trial period will let Kalamazoo figure out whether to continue and improve on the 3-lane version of the road when they rebuild, or go back to the drawing board: either way, they’ll be entering that process with good experience and traffic data.

What’s happening outside the right-of-way is also pretty exciting: the Kalamazoo Land Bank owns several properties in the area, and four once-vacant storefronts have filled up since we delivered their PlacePlan: a fitness studio, sandwich shop, credit union branch, and artisans market inhabit the newly renovated spaces.  While we can’t claim credit for the storefront rehabs–the Land Bank came to the table with these buildings already in-progress–these businesses and those that join them will offer more evidence of the power of coordinated public and private investment to make great places.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

Kalamazoo’s next step is the farmers’ market charrette coming up November 19-20: as their market bursts at the seams, they’re planning out the next stage of its growth–including how it connects to Washington Square and other areas nearby.

The latest new voice suggesting city centers are the place to be: Fitch Ratings.  In what Joe Cortright calls “maybe the most under-reported story of the year” for urbanists, the investment rating agency shows housing demand shifting towards urban centers “in nearly every city analyzed.”

According to Fitch, downtown home values maintained the advantage throughout the crash and recovery.

According to Fitch, downtown home values maintained the advantage throughout the crash and recovery–and show no sign of slowing down:

Significant demand is returning to city centers following decades of suburban and exurban growth. Since 2000, home prices have grown 50% faster in urban centers than in the broader MSA areas, with population growth trends beginning to favor city centers as well. ‘This demand shift implies that city centers will continue to see growth even where regional prices have been stagnant, such as Atlanta or Chicago,” said Director Stefan Hilts.

More supply will come online with Dan Gilbert's acquisition today of the long-vacant Book Building...but only after years of renovation.

More supply will come online with Dan Gilbert’s acquisition today of the long-vacant Book Building…but only after years of renovation. (photo by Flickr user gab482)

As Cortright points out, this is a powerful signal that the market wants not just more housing in our great urban neighborhoods–it wants more great urban neighborhoods. I previously covered that survey by the National Board of Realtors showing that 25% of Americans are living in single-family homes even though they’d prefer to live in an attached home in a more walkable neighborhoods: the report from Fitch shows people are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

This is why it’s so important that we invest in placemaking, in “Redevelopment Ready” practices, and in transportation choices like transit, biking, and walking. Michigan can’t afford to go slowly when it comes to bringing our supply of great places up to where the demand is.