Demolition in Historic District?

Immediate neighbors support demolition of gas station, two houses

At its Thursday meeting, Ann Arbor’s historic district commission gave approval for the demolition of a service station at Second & West Liberty streets.

Birds Eye View

The intersection of West Liberty and Second streets, looking north to south. (Image links to Microsoft's Bird's Eye View for additional detail.) The structures proposed for possible demolition are the corner service station and the two houses next door. The greenhouse space being marketed as destination retail is at the left of the frame, across the existing parking lot from the three structures proposed for demolition.

At its next meeting in March, the HDC will consider whether to give permission to proceed in demolishing two houses next door to the service station.

The permission for demolition was sought by Morningside Ann Arbor LLC, which developed the Liberty Lofts residential project in the former Eaton factory on the same block. Morningside’s reasons for seeking permission to demolish the three structures are related to another historic structure on the block: the former greenhouse space adjoining Liberty Lofts, which runs along First Street and the railroad tracks.

In order to market the former greenhouse space to retail tenants as having potential for more parking than the current 54 spaces, Morningside wants the option of expanding parking in the area where the three structures currently stand.

The Chronicle does not attend meetings of the HDC on a regular basis. Why were we there? When Mayor John Hieftje made the appointment of the historic district commission’s newest member, Patrick McCauley, at city council’s Feb. 2 meeting, he did so with council approval in a one-step process. That is, the mayor’s nomination and council’s confirmation came the same night, whereas the usual course of such nominations is to submit them for review, with a council vote the following meeting.

About the one-step process, Hieftje said it was important to have a fully-constituted historic district commission for a major decision the following Thursday. It turns out that the decision concerned permission to demolish the three buildings (one service station, and two houses) on Second Street, which are located in the Old West Side Historic District, just down West Liberty Street from Chronicle headquarters.

Historic District Commission Notice

Here, "change to the exterior appearance" means "demolition."

How Demolition in a Historic District Works

In deciding on an application to demolish a structure, the first issue on which the historic district commission votes is whether a structure is a “contributing resource” in the historic district.

This decision is not tantamount to a decision on demolition. However, the contributing/non-contributing distinction is important as far as the possible mechanisms by which demolition can be approved or denied.

The definition of contributing versus non-contributing is set forth in Bulletin 15 from the Michigan Secretary of the Interior and adopted by the State of Michigan as follows:

A contributing (historic) resource is one that adds to the historic association, historic architectural quality, or archaeological values for which a property is significant because it was present during the period of significance, relates directly to the documented significance, and possesses historic integrity.

A non-contributing (non-historic) resource is one that does not add to the historic architectural qualities or historic association of a district because it was not present during the period of significance, does not relate to the documented significance, or due to alteration, additions, and other changes it no longer possesses historic integrity.

If a structure is a non-contributing resource, then the commission can decide the application by either approving or denying a certificate of appropriateness. An example is Morningside’s application for permission to demolish the service station: HDC found Thursday night that the station was non-contributing, and a certificate of appropriateness for its demolition was then approved.

If a structure is a contributing resource, on the other hand, then the only options for deciding an application for demolition are to deny it or else to issue a “notice to proceed.” Otherwise put, if a structure is contributing to a historic district, then it’s not possible to issue a certificate of appropriateness for its demolition. What can happen, however, is that the historic district commission could give a green light to demolish a contributing structure by issuing a “notice to proceed.”

A notice to proceed must be based on specific criteria as outlined in the city’s code:

8:416. Notice to proceed.
(1) Work within a historic district shall be permitted through the issuance of a notice to proceed by the commission if any of the following conditions prevail and if the proposed work can be demonstrated by a finding of the commission to be necessary to substantially improve or correct any of the following conditions:
(a) The resource constitutes a hazard to the safety of the public or to the structure’s occupants.
(b) The resource is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be of substantial benefit to the community and the applicant proposing the work has obtained all necessary planning and zoning approvals, financing, and environmental clearances.
(c) Retaining the resource will cause undue financial hardship to the owner when a governmental action, an act of God, or other events beyond the owner’s control created the hardship, and all feasible alternatives to eliminate the financial hardship, which may include offering the resource for sale at its fair market value or moving the resource to a vacant site within the historic district, have been attempted and exhausted by the owner.
(d) Retaining the resource is not in the interest of the majority of the community.

But by the HDC’s rules, a notice to proceed cannot be issued at the same meeting as a finding that a property is contributing. Instead, the application must be postponed to the next meeting of the HDC, when the question of a notice to proceed or denial of the application can be deliberated. An example is Morningside’s application for permission to demolish the two houses on Second Street: The HDC voted that the two houses were contributing resources in the Old West Side Historic District, and postponed the application (by a 4-2 vote) to its next meeting. At that March 12 meeting, the HDC will be able to either approve a notice to proceed or deny the application.

Rear of Proposed Demolition Structures

Rear of structures proposed for demolition, looking southwest from Liberty.

How Historic District Commission Meetings Work

For each application considered by the commission, Jill Thacher, historic preservation coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor, gives a description of the factual background of the application, provides the commissioners with an analysis of which standards from the  Secretary of the Interior are applicable in a given case, and offers an assessment of whether the application meets the relevant SI standards. Members of the commission who are serving on a specific application’s review committee then offer their view of the staff report.

At that point the applicant is given an opportunity to make their case before the commission. After that, any members of the public who wish to speak are given a chance to weigh in on the matter. The applicant is then given a chance to rebut comments from the public. And finally, commissioners deliberate and vote.

Staff Summary and Review Committee Assessment

In providing the historical context of the three structures, Thacher focused on the block bounded by Liberty, Second, William, and First streets. She reported that it had enjoyed a mix of industrial and residential uses from as far back as 1880, when a tannery and several houses were located on the block. In 1966 the block had already evolved to the basic appearance of its mid 2000s shape, when the Liberty Lofts project was approved: a very large manufacturing building (the Eaton factory), plus three smaller structures: the service station at 325 W. Liberty, and the houses at 307 and 311 Second. These are the three structures that Morningside is seeking permission to demolish.

Thacher also provided specifics on the individual properties. The service station, she said, appears in city directories in 1938 as the Silkworth Oil Company filling station, and before that there had been a house on the site, dating at least back to 1880. [Editor's note: The fact that some structure has been at that site since 1880 weighed heavily in some of the subsequent commentary.] The house referred to throughout the discussion as either “the beige house” or “the tan house” was built around 1910, Thacher said. Frederich Heusel, the manager of City Bakery, and his wife Edith lived there from 1910 until 1915, and were succeeded by a variety of other workers. In 2002 vinyl siding was used to cover the house’s wood siding, and vinyl windows were installed.

The “blue house” next door dates from the same period as the beige house. It had frequent turnover until 1936 when a worker at the King-Seeley manufacturing plant moved in – he lived there until 1957.

Where exactly is this block? Thacher described some familiar surrounding landmarks, including the rear of the 415 W. Washington property and a car wash across Liberty Street, as well as the old Moveable Feast house (more recently Daniels on Liberty, and now housing Identity Salon & Spa). The railroad tracks cut across the northeast corner of the property. Thacher also highlighted the seven houses on the opposite side of Second Street from the structures proposed for demolition. The elevation change from the corner at Liberty and Second where the service stations stands down to the existing parking lot is 6-8 feet, Thacher estimated. The existing parking lot, just to the east of the structures proposed for demolition, would be expanded to create an additional 30 spaces, bringing the total to 84.

Applicable standards from the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitation, which were identified by Thacher as relevant to the application, are the following:

A property will be used as it was historically or given a new use that requires minimal change to its distinctive materials, features, spaces, and spatial relationships.
(2) The historic character of a property will be retained and preserved. The removal of distinctive materials or alteration of features, spaces, and spatial relationships that characterize a property will be avoided.
(9) New additions, exterior alterations, or related new construction shall not destroy historic materials that characterize the property. The new work shall be differentiated from the old and shall be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features to protect the historic integrity of the property and its environment.
(10) New additions and adjacent or related new construction will be undertaken in such a manner that, if removed in the future, the essential form and integrity of the historic property will be unimpaired.

Thacher also provided the recommendations from the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines on rehabilitating historic buildings – first with respect to a broader geographic context than just the building:

District or Neighborhood Setting

Recommended: Identifying, retaining, and preserving buildings, and streetscape, and landscape features which are important in defining the overall historic character of the district or neighborhood. Such features can include streets, alleys, paving, walkways, street lights, signs, benches, parks and gardens, and trees.

Retaining the historic relationship between buildings, and streetscape and landscape features such as a town square comprised of row houses and stores surrounding a communal park or open space.

Removing nonsignificant buildings, additions, or streetscape and landscape features which detract from the historic character of the district or the neighborhood.

Not Recommended: Removing or radically changing those features of the district or neighborhood which are important in defining the overall historic character so that, as a result, the character is diminished.

Destroying streetscape and landscape features by widening existing streets, changing paving
material, or introducing inappropriately located new streets or parking lots.

Removing or relocating historic buildings, or features of the streetscape and landscape, thus
destroying the historic relationship between buildings, features and open space.

Thacher also provided the relevant Secretary of the Interior guidelines for the specific building site:

Building Site

Recommended: Identifying, retaining, and preserving buildings and their features as well as features of the site that are important in defining its overall historic character.

Not Recommended: Removing or radically changing buildings and their features or site features which are important in defining the overall historic character of the property so that, as a result, the character is diminished. Removing or relocating buildings or landscape features thus destroying the historic relationship between buildings and the landscape.

Thacher concluded that the service station, for which permission for demolition was sought by Morningside, was a non-contributing resource. It’s fairly modern, she said, having been radically altered from the way it looked in the 1930s. What would be most appropriate, she said, would be to take down the gas station and put up another structure (given that some structure had occupied the corner for more than a hundred years).

In contrast, Thacher found that the two houses for which permission for demolition was sought are contributing resources in the Old West Side historic district. They have a similar size, massing, character, and age as other houses in the district, she said, and help define the historic character of the neighborhood. She pointed to the 130 years of coexisting residential and manufacturing use and the mix of single-family and manufacturing structures – even though they’re not currently being used for their originally intended purpose.

Thacher said that the work proposed – demolition of the two houses and creation of a parking lot with landscaping – would not be reversible, and thus did not meet standard number (10).

The HDC’s review committee on the application consisted of Jim Henrichs and Ellen Ramsburgh. Henrichs agreed with Thacher’s observations, saying it’s fairly clear that the gas station is not a contributing structure. He noted that the age and character of the houses means the houses are contributing. Henrichs said that there was, to him, a bit of a dilemma, in light of the desire to make the large amount of square footage in the greenhouse structure more viable. “Maybe I’m being overly optimistic,” he said, but he thought there might be other options in addition to the black-and-white choice to demolish or not. He suggested that re-locating the houses instead of demolishing them might be another solution.

Artists rendering showing how the parking lot would look when expanded. To get an idea of the grade change, note the retaining wall dividing the two sections. Cars would be able to loop around to the right at the back (south end) of the lot.

Rendering showing how the parking lot would look when expanded. To get an idea of the grade change from west to east, note the retaining wall dividing the two sections. Cars would be able to loop around to the right at the back (south end) of the lot, where the two halves' grades would meet.

As for the service station, Henrichs said a lot of people would be happy if that wasn’t there any longer. And he noted that it’s not possible to extend the parking if the service station were removed, but the houses left in place. This has to do with the grading and slope of the land. [The architect's plans show the transition from the lower elevation of the existing lot to the higher elevation of the proposed expansion as achieved through a connection on the southern-most end of the combined lots, which is at about the same elevation.]

Ramsburgh agreed with Thacher and Henrichs, noting that the dilemma arose because the commission had supported what has been done with Liberty Lofts property, saying it was a great example of re-use and re-hab. However, the commission had to keep in mind, she said, that all these many years, the block has had an interesting mix: residential, commercial and industrial. The mix, she said, speaks to the historical nature of the neighborhood. Replacement of the buildings with a parking lot would be a dramatic departure from the Secretary of the Interior standards, she said. While the petitioner emphasized in the written application that it’s a commercial block, Ramsburgh stressed that it’s always been a commercial-residential mix: a factory abutted by residences. To replace the buildings with a parking lot, she said, would be difficult to support.

Greg Jones, architect for the project, enumerates the place he shops downtown.

Greg Jones, architect for the project, enumerates the places he shops downtown.

The Applicant’s Case

Ronald Mucha of Morningside was joined by architect Greg Jones (who several years ago served on Ann Arbor’s historic district commission, including a turn as chair in 1999) to make their case for the application for permission to demolish the three structures. Jones began by saying he appreciated the challenge in front the commission that night, having in the past sat in their position himself.

He then addressed the reason for wanting to increase the available on-site parking by 30 spaces to 84 spaces: The greenhouse building (currently sitting empty) offers 19,000 square feet of “destination retail” space, a use specifically allowed with the current C3 zoning of the property, Jones said. Jones’ colleague, Ron Mucha, would clarify later in the meeting that for destination retail, a basic rule of thumb is 4 or 5 spaces per 1,000 square feet – which puts the 84 spaces Morningside would like in the middle of the 76-95 range given by the rule of thumb.

Jones said they were asking for permission to demolish the structures under criteria (b) in the list of criteria for a notice to proceed [see above], because they are a deterrent to a project that will be a substantial benefit to the community. He then set about to describe what that benefit was. The additional parking, Jones said, would enhance the viability and role of an iconic building – a reference to the greenhouse building. And the way to enhance buildings, Jones continued, is to bring life to them. The Liberty Lofts project is a billboard project for rehabilitation of historic buildings, he said, plus it’s brought residents downtown, which is a community goal.

At the time that the Liberty Lofts project was proposed, Morningside wanted to proceed without dealing with the three structures currently proposed for demolition, Jones noted. Morningside thought it would work with that amount of parking space (54 spaces), but prospective tenants are looking for additional parking relative to the amount of retail space.

Jones said that the work would benefit the downtown district and the Old West Side, because it would bring people downtown who don’t live near the area, but who want to support downtown. Jones said that he personally shops at Downtown Home and Garden (one block north of the greenhouse building), Zingermans, Kerrytown and the farmers market, because he supports downtown businesses. If there were retail at the greenhouse building, he’d try to patronize that, too, he said. In that regard, he said, it’s not just a benefit to the owner or just to the people in the immediate area.

The removal of the three structures was not something that they took lightly, Jones said, but their loss was balanced out by the addition of parking that would improve the image and vitality of another large and iconic structure (the greenhouse building), a major face of the Old West Side to the downtown area. There’s currently no life there, Jones said, even though it’s been rehabilitated. The revitalization of the greenhouse structure was the “last piece of the puzzle” to the rehabbing of the old Eaton factory and the demolition of the tannery, which was undertaken as a residential project.

Jones said historic preservation is about more than saving a particular building: “We talk all the time about how historic preservation is good for the community, enhances the community economically.” The benefits of the proposed parking lot expansion, he said, go beyond the individual building or individual neighborhood by bringing a solid retail tenant downtown. This can reinforce that goal of rehabilitation, can provide jobs downtown, and increase the attractiveness of the Old West Side.

Ronald Mucha shows Jill Thacher the drawings with the floodway and floodplain boundaries.

Ron Mucha of Morningside shows Jill Thacher, the city's historic preservation coordinator, drawings with the floodway and floodplain boundaries of his firm's proposed project.

Jones pointed out that all of the residents on Second Street, across from the buildings proposed for demolition, have expressed their support through letters or by appearing before the commission that evening. Further, Jones said, there was no opposition to the proposed demolition among the 68 residents of Liberty Lofts.

Jones concluded by saying that the Secretary of the Interior standards do permit alteration of existing properties to accommodate new uses. The character-defining features of the property, Jones said, are its industrial scale, massing, and character. The use of the property had been primarily industrial for the last 70 to 80 years, and the removal of these properties would not affect the essential character of the block.

Queried by commissioner Robert White, Mucha said that Morningside would certainly make the houses available at no cost if someone wanted to move them to an alternate location, but that they could not commit to undertaking the moving. The cost of creating the parking, Mucha said, worked out to about the same cost per space as it would cost to build them in a parking deck, once land acquisition costs were factored in. He could, therefore, not layer the cost of moving the houses on top of the cost to create the parking.

Public Hearing

Several members of the public spoke about the project. Though it doesn’t match the chronology of speakers at the meeting, we’ve grouped together comments of those who spoke in support followed by those who opposed it. Also, we’ve inserted the rebuttal by Mucha and Jones of specific points made by speakers opposing the proposed parking expansion. Chronlogically, these rebuttals came lumped at the end.

Nancy Goldstein: Goldstein said she and her husband had seen a lot of changes in this corner in the 36 years they’d live within view of the block. She said she’d served on the Old West Side Association board for 12 years, and could therefore sympathize with the commissioners’ dilemma. Still, she said, she thought the proposed parking lot expansion would enhance the neighborhood. “We have big hopes for this corner,” she said. She pointed out that when the tannery building was demolished to make the Liberty Lofts project possible, that change was supported. She allowed that there’s always been a mixture of uses in the neighborhood, and that was exactly what they were hoping for: to create an amenity for people walking or driving to the location.

Tony Lupo (left) and Ray Detter overlapped at the podium as Detter signed in following his speaking turn.

Tony Lupo (left) and Ray Detter overlapped at the podium as Detter signed in following his speaking turn.

Goldstein said she felt the two houses were not significant as structures. She said she could sit on her porch and imagine the proposed landscaping and figured it might inspire neighbors to improve their landscaping as well.

Bob Gilardi and John Chamberlin: Gilardi and Chamberlin brought a letter of support, written on behalf of the Liberty Lofts Homeowners Association. They said there had been several meetings to give people in the building an opportunity to have discussion, and that their position [of support] was in the letter.

Wendy Rich: Rich said she owned two houses in the 300 block of Second Street and was supportive of Morningside’s proposal. She said they did a beautiful job on Liberty Lofts and she was excited to see the service station come down, especially because it’s now empty.

Kevin Hawkins: Hawkins said the two houses proposed for demolition look out of place, and that they don’t contribute to the area. He suggested there’s a clear boundary to the neighborhood – running down the middle of the street. Removal of the structures, he said, would make the block look better.

Tony Lupo: Lupo is director of sales and marketing for SalonVox, located east on Liberty from the site. He’d appeared earlier in the meeting on a request (which was denied) for permission to replace the front door on the salon. Lupo said he hadn’t planned on speaking about the proposed demolition, but said “I’m excited that I stayed!” He said he lived in Liberty Lofts and that the service station is an absolute eyesore. While he allowed that the houses have some historic value, he said they’re nestled really awkwardly into the space. He noted that there’s a lot of community interest in seeing the space of the greenhouse building become an exciting destination – based on inquiries he receives from people who know he lives in the adjoining Liberty Lofts building.

Ethel Potts: Potts began by saying that the wonderful rehab of the Eaton factory into Liberty Lofts is really special. But she said that demolishing the buildings would be a change to the corner. For people coming down the hill, she said, the service station stands out – there’s always been a structure there. A parking lot, however well-landscaped, she continued, would be different. It would be a bare corner. To have houses only on one side with no hint of residential on the other side would be a change. Potts said that the neighborhood edges are fragile: It’s very easy to whittle away the edges, she feared.

But Potts’ biggest concern is the slope of the land. She was concerned that the dropoff would take a great deal of grading, and a great deal of earthmoving. Potts concluded by returning to her initial point: it will make a change in the streetscape. Specifically, instead of having a building on this prominent corner, there would be a parking lot.

Chris Crockett (left) and Rita Mitchell both spoke against the idea of creating parking in place of the three buildings.

Chris Crockett (left) and Rita Mitchell both spoke against the idea of creating parking in place of the three buildings.

Rita Mitchell: Mitchell posed a question: Why is the first choice parking? Always choosing parking is the wrong way to go, she said. She wanted the project to succeed, she said, and Liberty Lofts is a great project. Mitchell said she’s sorry that the greenhouse hasn’t been filled with a tenant yet, but that people should be walking there, as opposed to driving.

In response to the walkability question, Mucha would later say, “Walkablilty is something we all support, but if you only rely on the Old West Side, it won’t work.” Mucha spoke in terms of the number of rooftops in the OWS. “There’s good incomes in those rooftoops, but the reality is there’s not enough of those rooftops to support this commercially,” Mucha said.

Christine Crockett: Crockett appeared representing the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance. She began by thanking the city’s historic preservation coordinator, Jill Thacher, for her report. Crockett emhasized that these decisions are not governed by likes and dislikes, or whether this is economically expedient for the developer, but rather by the law, the Secretary of the Interior’s standards, and the central area plan of the city, which calls for the preservation of the character of the neighborhoods.

Crockett responded to the comments of Goldstein and others about the relative historical significance of the houses. She said that people denigrate them by saying that they’re not special, but that it’s the neighborhood that has been deemed special by the law. The houses reflect working-class Ann Arbor, where people lived close to where they worked. To say that they’re not significant, she said, denigrates the importance of having the rhythm of the streetscape recognized.

Crockett noted that Morningside already had 54 spaces on site and that parking lots aren’t lively 24-7, but rather represent dead space. She noted that there were 244 additional parking spaces planned for the City Apartments project at First and Washington. As far as the idea of attracting a food emporium by offering more parking, she pointed out that the People’s Food Coop has no parking, yet it’s vibrant and vital.

She said she supported the staff report, and given the grade problems, recommended no demolition for the service station until there’s a plan to construct a building there.

Mucha would respond to Crockett’s characterization of the project as “economically expedient” by stressing that it’s not economical to create the additional parking, which is why demolition is contingent on finding a tenant who requires the additional parking. Parking will be constructed, Mucha said, only if parking is the missing piece to a possible deal with a tenant.

Mucha said that some potential tenants from outside the Ann Arbor market don’t think 54 spaces are adequate for the amount of retail space. He said that they do explain to potential tenants that 244 spaces are going to be built at First and Washington and that there are spaces at the DDA’s temporary lot at 415 W. Washington, but that to date, those facts have not led to a deal.

Mucha drew a distinciton between the central business district downtown and a destination retail location. “This is not CBD,” Mucha said, “this is destination retail, and it’s a different game than downtown.”

Ray Detter: Detter spoke for the Downtown Area Citizens Advisory Committee. He began by congratulating Ron Mucha for rehabilitating the Eaton factory into Liberty Lofts. But Detter contended that the current application had little to do with Liberty Lofts. He congratulated Jill Thacher on the conclusions in her report and said that the proposed demolition violates Secretary of the Interior standards.

Responding to the many speakers – including some commissioners – who had spoken of a “dilemma,” Detter said flatly: “There should be no dilemma: it’s clear.” Even though many people in the neighborhood might think it’s nice to have something other than a service station there, Detter said, “We’re here to follow the Secretary of the Interior standards.” He said that the service station should be replaced with something appropriate, not an extension of an unwelcoming and inappropriate parking lot. Detter went on to explain how the proposal is in conflict not just with historic district requirements, but also with the downtown plan and central area plan. Noting that the two houses are residential properties, Detter quoted from the section of the central area plan that calls on new development to “protect, preserve and enhance the scale and character of existing housing in established residential areas, recognizing the distinctive qualities of each neighborhood.”

But Detter did not spend much time quoting from city planning documents, and offered this: “If tearing down a historically designated house is a major improvement, which the developers claim in this particular case, and will enhance the commercial vitality of downtown Ann Arbor, then historic preservation in this town has no future!” That same argument, said Detter, will be used to destroy Ann Arbor’s residential neighborhoods.

On the question of parking in particular, Detter said, “Parking lots are abominations in the downtown!” and expressed his amazement at the remarks of Nancy Goldstein, who Detter said “made a career at one particular point going around saying you didn’t need more parking in the downtown.” What we need, Detter said, is a better approach to parking and transportation.

The call for big grocery stores downtown, said Detter, comes from people who don’t live downtown [Detter is a downtown resident]. “They say we need a big grocery store, a big CVS. We don’t don’t need a big grocery store and we don’t need a big CVS! That’s contrary to what downtowns are all about! You can walk to Downtown Home and Garden, you can walk to People’s Coop, you can walk to Knight’s Market, you can walk to White’s and that’s what downtown living is all about, not driving your car into a big parking lot that belongs somewhere out on Stadium Boulevard or Plymouth Road where we have those kinds of businesses.”

Jones would respond to Detter’s implication that they wanted to characterize the demolition of two houses as a good thing by saying, “Tearing down housing is not an improvement – that’s not what we’re telling you.” What Jones said he wanted to tell the commission is that a parking lot makes it possible for another building (the greenhouse building) to bring life to a neighborhood.

Commission Deliberations

The first step was to determine the question of contributing versus non-contributing for the three structures.

Outcome: The commission made quick work of the service station, voting unanimously to declare it a non-contributing resource.

The two houses, on the other hand, prompted lengthy discussion about whether they were contributing resources.

Commissioner Diane Giannola said she didn’t think the houses were architecturally significant. She noted they didn’t have their original windows and one had been clad in vinyl siding. “They’re not that special,” she said. The blue building she characterized as “a commercial building in the shape of a house.” She agreed with the sentiments of some members of the public, who said the houses seem out of place there.

Sarah Shotwell, who chairs the commission, said she understood what Giannola was saying, but that it was important to distinguish between the notions of “significant” versus “contributing” Shotwell said the context, the historic use, and the land they sit on make them contributing, taking care to emphasize that the determination of the contributing/non-contributing status of the houses was separate from the question of demolition.

Commissioner Jim Henrichs said the houses met the definition for being contributing, and that the question would be whether the project is a benefit to the overall community or not – a question that the commission would deliberate as a separate matter.

Commissioner Robert White pointed to the neighbors who feel the houses are not contributing and are in fact kind of an eyesore. “They’re the one’s who’ll be looking at this,” said White.

Shotwell posed the rhetorical question of whether the houses had had so many repairs and changes that they’re basically no longer the same building? Her answer: No. She thus concluded the houses were contributing resources.

Commissioner Ellen Ramsburgh agreed with Shotwell, saying the historical context in which the houses have existed for 100 years is the way the block has been all these years. Ramsburgh echoed the call from Detter and Crockett to decide the issue based on Secretary of the Interior standards, not on whether the houses look prestigious, or significant, or based on popularity.

White returned to the issue of the vinyl siding and windows, saying that to him these changes raised the question of whether the houses retained their historic significance. Commissioner Patrick McCauley noted that the 2002 renovation of the tan house would have needed HDC approval, and that an HDC-approved change should not affect whether the house was contributing or non-contributing. But Shotwell observed that the 2002 decision would have been made under the old OWS ordinance [a streetscape standard] not the new uniform code across all historic districts currently in place [a 360-degree standard].

A brief interlude on the question of vinyl siding in the Old West Side ensued. [Editor's note: The Chronicle's headquarters in the OWS was sided with vinyl by a previous owner.]

Ramsburgh returned the discussion to the level of the neighborhood by asking her colleagues to consider the houses on the opposite side of the street. Those houses are similar to the two houses under discussion, she said, and if you say that the two are non-contributing, then the houses across the street are non-contributing, too.

Outcome: A motion declaring the two houses to be contributing structures to the OWS historic district passed with McCauley, Ramsburgh, Henrichs, and Shotwell supporting it. White and Giannola dissented.

The commission next considered a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition of the service station. Ramsburgh expressed concern that a parking lot was not an appropriate contribution to a historic district. She said that without a plan to replace it with anything other than a parking lot would be detrimental to the OWS.

McCauley wanted to know how the floodplain affected redevelopment of that corner. Thacher advised that the properties are either in the floodway or the floodplain, and that any re-development would be difficult. Mucha produced maps to show where the floodway and floodplain boundaries ran.

Giannola and Henrichs both expressed their strong support for the idea of the service station coming down. Giannola said that nobody is going to take up the environmental costs to take it down and to put up some other structure. If a condition was placed on demolition to put up another structure, she said, the building would sit vacant, which would be a detriment to the OWS.

Henrichs ventured that some kind of public seating area or amenity on that corner that would bring the community more into the site would be nice, but said the commission doesn’t do the design work. A first step, said Henrichs, was that the service station should come down.

Outcome: The motion to issue a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition of the service station was approved with no audible dissent.

Liberty Lofts Parking

Intersection of Second and William streets, looking northeast, with Liberty Lofts in the foreground. Behind the blue house is another similar house and a service station, all three of which the developer of Liberty Lofts has requested Historic District Commission permission to demolish.

The commission then tackled the question of the two houses. It was not an option to issue a certificate of appropriateness [see discussion above], because they had determined that they were contributing resources. In describing the motion to postpone the application – a postponement that was necessary if the commission wanted to consider issuing a notice to proceed – Thacher noted that the applicant could only qualify for a notice to proceed under letter (d).

This was a source of confusion and frustration for Jones and Mucha, who wanted a chance to respond to Thacher’s statement. They felt they might also qualify under (b). But Shotwell, who was chairing the meeting, informed them that the public hearing segment had been closed and that it was not possible at that time to hear them out. Giannola then moved to suspend the rules to reopen the hearing. Henrichs suggested there be a time limit, and in the end Mucha and Jones had another crack at the lettered criteria. We repeat letters (b) and (d) from above for readability:

The resource is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be of substantial benefit to the community and the applicant proposing the work has obtained all necessary planning and zoning approvals, financing, and environmental clearances.
(d) Retaining the resource is not in the interest of the majority of the community.

It was Mucha’s contention that the language in the second half of (b) was not meant to be taken literally, because it was not possible for an applicant to have completed environmental clearances, for example, until work had begun to determine what remediation might be required. In the case of the service station, Mucha said, the required environmental remediation couldn’t be determined until the underground tanks had been dug up.

Kristine Kidorf, who was present as the city’s consultant, indicated that the rationale behind criterion (b) was to prevent the unnecessary loss of a historic resource, by ensuring that after demolition there was a project that would redevelop the property.

It was then indicated that the city attorney’s office would provide guidance before the next commission meeting in March on the question of the (b) standard.

Outcome: The motion to postpone the application was then passed with support from White, Giannola, Henrichs, and Shotwell supporting it. McCauley and Ramsburgh dissented.


  1. February 16, 2009 at 2:08 pm | permalink

    I seem to recall that the service station has some history … wasn’t it quite a local institution at one time?

  2. February 16, 2009 at 3:05 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the excellent reporting. Its pretty clear to me that the parking is necessary to make this location viable for retailing. Until we have exceptional circulation downtown by bus, rail etc. where people can move about easily without a car, the parking will be needed.

  3. By Steve Bean
    February 16, 2009 at 4:39 pm | permalink

    Michigan has a Secretary of the Interior?

    By “etc.”, I’m guessing that Andy’s not referring to walking and biking, since those are existing ways that people can move about without a car, as I and some of my neighbors do when we walk to the PFC and/or the farmer’s market to get groceries.

    As for buses, providing more parking is the last thing that will increase demand for them.

    I wonder how the number of available spaces in the area of the PFC compares to what’s currently around the site in question. Of course, those near the PFC serve other businesses/offices at various times, not just the PFC, so a straightforward comparison may not be possible.

  4. By Dave Askins
    February 16, 2009 at 4:44 pm | permalink

    Steve Bean wonders “Michigan has a Secretary of the Interior?”

    Judging from the timestamp on your comment, Steve, you were writing it just about the same time that we corrected the reference above to read: “… from the Secretary of the Interior and adopted by the State of Michigan …”

  5. February 16, 2009 at 6:31 pm | permalink

    The last thing we need in the neighborhood is more parking. Thank you so much for reporting on this issue. Get out and walk, bike, take a pedicab.

  6. By Joel Batterman
    February 17, 2009 at 2:39 am | permalink

    Yes, the parking lot proposal is unfortunate, and especially sad for an “adaptive reuse” project like Liberty Lofts. Its whole virtue lies in recycling what’s there; destroying homes for parking is antithetical to that end. So much of downtown has already fallen to surface parking lots. I have to remind myself that these spaces too once contained buildings where people lived and worked, not just asphalt and empty air.

    The parking “rules of thumb” that are cited are almost invariably excessive; they’re formulated with new greenfield development in mind, development where no one can walk to destinations, not for the middle of a neighborhood at the edge of a downtown. Yes, we need to “bring life” to the core; but to suggest that demolishing it for parking lots will do that is tragically flawed thinking. It’s only logical through the logic of car-dependency, but at some point we have to part with that logic. Thanks to Detter for voicing this rule of thumb, which I wish we’d learned in the age of “urban renewal”: it’s time we stopped destroying the city in order to save it.

  7. By Christine Crockett
    February 17, 2009 at 10:03 am | permalink

    Thank you for your comprehensive article on the recent HDC meeting. Not only did you accurately report the many details of the Morningside request for demolition in the Old West Side Historic District, but you also have helped the educate the community about the laws which apply to such issues. Many times the public is not informed about how historic district issues are reviewed, and your thorough reporting of the hearing itself as well as the legal issues has helped to clarify the complexities of this request for demolition. I appreciate your fine work. Christine Crockett

  8. By MargaretSch
    February 18, 2009 at 7:32 am | permalink

    Thanks for another very thorough, readable article Dave. I now feel fully informed on this issue. I especially appreciate how all sides are presented without bias. Many thanks to you & Mary for this great public service!

  9. By Scott
    February 24, 2009 at 11:50 am | permalink

    I like density as much as the next person, and don’t like having to drive if I want to buy groceries, but the anti-car people are not making a lot of sense. If a business wants to move in without extra parking, it can. At the moment, nobody wants to move in and parking seems to be the problem. So do we want a business, downtown, within walking distance, perhaps providing something useful like price-competitive groceries…or an empty building, an empty parking lot, two undistinguished houses and an abandoned gas station?

    That is the choice. It is remarkably self-defeating to oppose a measure that would create some life in that location in the name of making it easier and more agreeable to walk. It would be easier and more agreeable to walk if I could walk to something useful, like a grocery store.