In many of our historic neighborhoods, you can glimpse carriage houses behind the main homes. These two-story glorified garages typically date to the late 1800s, ranging from simpler barn-like structures to ornate smaller twins of the main house, and often included servants’ quarters on the upper story. Today, these carriage houses are big enough to support an apartment, spacious home office, or workshop…That is, when they’ve survived.

A sadly typical example of the form--the "historic building" plaque may be the only structurally sound part of the building.

A sadly typical example of the form–the “historic building” plaque may be the only structurally sound part of the building.

To the chagrin of many in the historic preservation world, carriage houses are often allowed to decay, then demolished. If we look at the overall pattern and landscape of historic neighborhoods as something worth preserving, this is a loss, no matter how immaculately kept the main house may be. And to the property owner—especially one who bought the property with the carriage house already beyond reasonable repair—there are few incentives to invest in restoring them.

Enter the Accessory Dwelling Unit.

Perhaps the best tool cities have to support preservation of these structures is to make them economically productive assets for the homeowner by allowing—or even incentivizing—their reuse as small apartments. This is also an opportunity for older communities to start adding the “missing middle” of housing options back in to their mix.

Encouraging owners of historic homes to build ADUs in their carriage barns can be a more powerful preservation tool than any amount of enforcement—while supporting increased property values, population, and all the other benefits that ADUs offer to any neighborhood.

Some great examples of the form. I think. It can be hard to tell from the street--which is why ADUs are sometimes called "invisible density".

Some great examples of the carriage house ADU. At least I think they are–it can be hard to tell from the street whether these are lived in, which is why ADUs are sometimes called “invisible density”.

Coming from the other side, historic districts can be a great place for a community to take baby steps on ADUs. If a community has concerns about accessory dwelling units “fitting in” but isn’t ready to dive into writing a form-based code to address those concerns, an existing historic district already offers standards for making sure new units fit the local context. (Considering the historic activities these structures were originally used for, including living space, ADUs will often be a more context-appropriate option than a more passive use.)

So where should a community look to start?

First, ADUs need to be provided for in zoning. Under a conventional zoning ordinance, if there is no single zoning district that aligns well with the historic neighborhood in question, an overlay district may be the best way to match up new standards. Look to ordinance language like Grand Rapids’ for the type of provisions to include—within that sample, the critical enabling language is “Residential Density. The ADU shall not be counted toward maximum residential density requirements.”

(Under a form-based code, enabling carriage house ADUs can be done through a new building type entry: look to our Traverse City PlacePlan for an example, on pages 185-187 of the PDF.)

From there, consider exemptions from any policies that may make carriage house ADUs prohibitively expensive. For example, the cost to run dedicated water and sewer lines (plus tap fees!) will eat up a much larger slice of the total construction cost for a 500-square-foot ADU than for a new home. If ADUs are to be part of a historic preservation strategy, consider waiving tap fees, or allowing the ADU to tie into the existing laterals for the main house. (This will require working with your building official to identify proper backflow protections on the shared sewer lateral.) New-build requirements like a site plan—or even survey—might not make sense in the context of rehabilitating a century-old structure. Off-street parking requirements should be applied cautiously, if at all.

Finally, educating all involved on the rules and the intent will help get carriage houses off the endangered list: this should involve not just working with the historic district commission in developing standards, but proactive outreach to the owners of candidate carriage barns to put this opportunity on their radar. Realtors will also be important partners in helping prospective homeowners see their carriage barns as an opportunity, rather than a nuisance.

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.

Visiting family in Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill neighborhood over the holidays is always a great opportunity to dive into another city’s urban form.  (Or at least that’s the excuse I give to get out of the house and away from family for a while!)  The

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

Great neighborhoods dedicate only the bare minimum amount of space to parking.

area, just east of downtown and south of the Medical Mile, is one of Michigan’s great urban neighborhoods, and it achieves that status despite (or because of) breaking several “everybody knows” rules of neighborhood planning.

Most communities’ planning & zoning documents assume an ideal neighborhood to be one that is dominated by owner-occupied single-family homes, with adequate yards for those families’ children to play in and driveways and garages for their cars to park in–any other neighborhood pattern is treated as somewhat less desirable, whether for reasons of “stability”, property values, maintenance standards, nuisance, or similar.  Many people certainly do want to live in that type of neighborhood, but because our zoning has enforced this as the “good” neighborhood pattern for 70 years now, most of our cities have an oversupply of it, while lacking options for residents who want something else.

The "terrace" pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

The “terrace” pattern in Heritage Hill and Midtown fits half a dozen additional houses into the center of a block, or into places where irregular terrain or other factors break the street grid.

Heritage Hill, and the adjacent East Hills and Midtown neighborhoods, showcase a different pattern: while most of the properties in this area look like “a house,” these neighborhoods have some of the highest residential densities in the city, and both homeowners and single-family homes are a minority.

This contrast comes from a few factors:

  • Homes are placed on relatively small lots–many less than 1/10 acre.
  • Most have very small “yard” areas, with front porches often within a few feet of the sidewalk, and the building occupying most of its lot.
  • While there are larger apartment buildings scattered through the neighborhood, the majority of dwelling units are in duplexes or  3- or 4-plexes. Some of these are visibly constructed as “flats”, but most are houses.
  • The historic streets are narrow, and off-street parking is limited, dedicating less of the neighborhood’s total acreage to asphalt.

Far from being less desirable as a result, data from GVSU’s Community Research Institute show these neighborhoods having above average shares of young, educated households and above average incomes; property values are strong and rising, and active renovation projects are visible on every block–just the type of talent attraction and local investment outcomes we hope to see from successful strategic placemaking efforts.

Martha's Vineyard, "a corner store with a global wine selection", anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster--pizza, bakery, and coffee--in Midtown.

Martha’s Vineyard, “a corner store with a global wine selection”, anchors a neighborhood convenience cluster–pizza, bakery, and coffee–in Midtown.

The neighborhoods also feature small business districts tucked within them, some only a few buildings large and located on “small residential streets” that wouldn’t meet most standards for commercial development. These are both cause and effect of the neighborhoods’ success: having the ability to grab a quick coffee or a few grocery items for dinner within a short walk of home is a plus for prospective residents–and the high density of those residents provides the critical mass of customers that supports those businesses.

Obviously, the historic housing stock of these neighborhoods is hard to replicate (the photos here are far from the most “grand” examples in the area) though a lot of the ingredients for success can be adopted by other neighborhoods, especially where there is a historic street grid and housing to start with:

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners' contributions and build a shared sense of place identity.

Neighborhood organizations use plaque programs both to recognize individual property owners’ contributions and to build a shared sense of place identity.

  • The small lot, duplex to 4-plex pattern that contributes most of the residential density here can be used to add new choices to many neighborhoods, filling the “missing middle” between single-family homes and larger apartment complexes. A form-based code can help ensure these options, either as conversions or new construction, fit in with the existing building stock.
  • Look beyond zoning when considering the appropriate way to manage a neighborhood–here, the historic district designations and controls have clearly been the most significant regulatory contributor to success, rather than zoning.
  • Adopt a Complete Streets approach that allows residents to walk, bike, or take transit to many destinations reduces the need to plan around parking–in these Grand Rapids neighborhoods, about 2/3 of households have only 1 car, or none whatsoever.

Even more than these specific actions, having an engaged neighborhood is critical–the “place governance” here arose in the late 1960s, when residents organized to prevent the widespread demolition of their neighborhood for redevelopment, as well as to reach out and recruit new residents in spite of mortgage redlining, and the place the neighborhood is today reflects the interests and tactics of residents then.  Fortunately, not all organizing for place needs to arise from crisis.