Blog: Melissa Milton-Pung

Melissa Milton-Pung is a project manager at Washtenaw County. She holds a bachelor's degree in public history from Western Michigan University, a master's degree in historic preservation from the University of Kentucky College of Architecture, and was an Historic Deerfield Fellow. She says that this intersection of "ye olde historical stuff" with public policy and government makes a great set of skills for community revitalization.
Melissa got her start out of grad school by working in the consulting sector on federal compliance projects and historic property designations. At Washtenaw County since 2005, she oversees the historic preservation program, writes grants, does economic development, and provides technical assistance for local governments seeking to stimulate public/private investment and preserve community character.
Non-profit involvement is tremendously important to Melissa. She is the vice president of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (a National Trust Local Partner), where for the past seven years she has helped lead several successful grassroots campaigns for enhancement and syndication of the Michigan Rehabilitation Tax Credits.  She is the immediate past board chair of The Arts Alliance, a county-wide arts and cultural organization which serves the vibrant arts and cultural community of Washtenaw County, and also serves on the board of the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation.
If that isn't enough, Melissa is also the mother of two young children. In her spare time, she likes to practice yoga, fiddle around with the camera, and chill out with her partner in crime, Barnaby Pung.

Melissa Milton-Pung - Most Recent Posts:

Collaboration Is Not a Dirty Word

Historic preservation is a good investment. Here's why.

Over the past several decades, historic preservation has evolved from first-round documentation of superlatives (think about Mount Vernon, George Washington's home and the target of America's first historic preservation society) to pushing the envelope on phone apps that provide interactive walking tours and placing our claim on cool with atomic age design.  The discipline of historic preservation has matured from a single-minded focus on saving old buildings for their architectural and/or historic significance to a dynamic policy platform that permeates a wide variety of allied fields and stakeholder groups.  The players include historians, planners, architects, engineers, developers, contractors, skilled tradespeople, artists, government at all levels, investors, accountants, attorneys, tourism groups, hotel and retail associations, agribusinesses, and a host of non-profits (including downtown development authorities, Main Street organizations, community development corporations, farmers markets, and affordable housing groups).  The list goes on and on.

As aptly stated by the National Trust, this approach asks the question of "How can we better partner and work with traditional and new partners to increase preservation's relevance in modern communities?"  The point is that the historic preservation community has hooked into the hottest thing going in the down economy: playing nice with others and getting through this mess, also known as collaboration that creates jobs.??Here are some examples:

If It's Broke, Teach People to Fix It – Historic preservationists are accustomed to using our skills for rehabbing old windows for the sake of a building's integrity.  We're now training contractors on how to make those old windows even more efficient than replacements.  And, we also promote sustainable practices to prevent landfill waste. Lo and behold, now we're hip with the environmental crowd because the greenest building is the one that's already built.  AND, amid the lowest housing starts numbers in more than a generation, the building industry is all over this idea of expanding their markets inward toward the maintenance of existing buildings.

Put Your Money Where Your Feet Are – We want to keep our downtown cores vibrant and walkable, with storefronts filled with reasons for increased foot traffic.  (My fan-boy husband suggests that you exercise this concept by visiting Vault of Midnight in downtown A2.) Countless public and private programs across the state are making the conscious choice to invest for revitalization rather than sprawl.  For example, a local eastern Washtenaw County partnership initiative has recently invested $60,000 in façade improvements along West Cross Street in Ypsilanti to assist five businesses and property owners in bringing several vacant and underutilized historic buildings up to code to attract new tenants.  This investment leveraged over $650,000 in private capital investment and created 27 new permanent jobs.  This work coordinated with some street upgrades and resulted in a totally transformed commercial area.

Realize a Better ROI – Historic preservation projects are uniquely linked to communities in a place-based economy that enriches the tax base and helps stabilize property values over time.  Because we use skilled trades that act as a "multiplier that ripples through the economy" as reported in a recent study by PlaceEconomics, "$1 million in building rehabilitation creates 12 more jobs [in Michigan] than does manufacturing $1 million worth of cars."

Building rehab projects are outstanding case studies for cross-sectoral collaboration and job creation. Often using our dearly departed Michigan Historic Tax Credits, they were truly some of the only projects moving during the credit crunch of 2008 to 2011. For every $1 of state historic tax credit issued, $4 in private investment was generated.  Even before the economy tanked, private investment spurred over $902 million to Michigan's economy between 2001 and 2005, for a total economic impact of more than $1.93 billion and the creation of more than 22,000 jobs.

These trends are exciting, and gratifying, in a rustbelt region caught up in a painful economic adolescence.  We don't know what's next, but there are some promising indicators.  As it stands now, despite the loss of such useful financing tools for community investment as a result of the budget process, the state of Michigan is working on unrolling a Community Revitalization Program that will provide $100 million in grants to continue the work of MEGA, brownfield, and historic tax credit programs.  We can hope that in the future that this relatively small pool of money will be increased for even greater investment in our communities, and that these exciting trends of collaborative partnerships will continue to strive and thrive.

It simply makes good economic sense.

Will You Know This Place In 50 Years?

My family recently had the pleasure of traveling to Germany and the Czech Republic.  Throughout the course of this journey through several cities, we learned a lot about how a community ages over time.  While the size, scale, and sheer age of many European cities is in a completely different category than most of what we have in the United States, we nevertheless observed a variety of community revitalization strategies that our community can emulate here at home.

1. Infill can often be the best choice.  So much of Europe was destroyed during WWII.  Many communities decided to recreate their historic city centers based on pre-war documentation.  Yet others took what survived and infilled with modern buildings.  This second approach is indebted to continuing innovation in architecture and engineering, and is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate LEED principles.

2. New construction should be reflective of its own era.  Thinking ahead into the future, it can forge the way for the next wave of historic resources.  For example, in Prague, Frank Gehry's Dancing House is already a textbook example of deconstructionist architecture applied within an historic neighborhood.  This house was built upon a site leveled by bombing in 1945 and constructed next door to the Art Nouveau style home of Vaclav Havel, a leading political figure of the Velvet Revolution of 1989. This juxtaposition of the two dramatically different building styles illustrates the sweeping political shifts of the late 20th century, and remains an accurate representation of each era.

3. Shape and siting matters.  What is new today will often someday attain historic significance in its own right.  What's important now is to get the form, massing, and scale right so that overall community character is retained.  This approach was particularly successful in Germany, given the brilliance of many modern German architects in the late 20th century. Some people call it form-based codes. I call it fitting in with the neighbors.

4. Put transportation where it's needed. There's nothing like the efficiency of the German train system.  Rather than the "build it and they will come" mentality, in most cases, transportation infrastructure exists to connect people from less densely populated fringes to the city centers.  This convenient and affordable system supports property value retention in the urban cores, encourages the use and re-use of historic resources in the city by merit of their location (in addition to their architectural appeal), and lessens the pressure for greenfield construction away from existing developed areas.  While we don't have the density of European countries, we do have the need to explore less car-dependent transportation options.

Upon our return from Europe, I was again struck by the relative term of "historic" in our own context of Michigan history.  Our local built environment and its associated history are less complex, less lengthy, but no less important.  According to criteria set forth by the National Register of Historic Places, historic properties include sites, buildings, structures, and objects.  The usual age for a property to be considered historic is at least 50 years old, and it must possess integrity of location, design, setting, material, workmanship, feeling, and association from its period of significance.  There are numerous kinds of historic properties across Washtenaw County which still possess this level of integrity.  Many are familiar to locals, e.g.: Ann Arbor's Old West Side and Ypsilanti's Historic District.  They are replete with the Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne styles so emblematic of the traditional downtowns and neighborhoods in our region.  Some are less well-known, like the mid-century modern homes of Ann Arbor Hills or East Delhi Bridge.

Historic significance is derived from a lot of tangible and intangible qualities, but it essentially boils down to this: is it authentic? A popular test among preservationists is to ask the questions, "If a property owner from 50 years or more in the past came back, would he or she recognize this historic resource? Would they know this place?"

While some people may complain about the restrictions placed upon a building located within a local historic district, the preservation ideology around historic resources is designed to help retain that important quality of authenticity.  It does not necessarily mandate painstaking, museum quality preservation.  Rather, there's room for interpretation in what is often jokingly called the Ten Commandments of historic preservation.

The point is to live with, care for, use and re-use our architectural patrimony – and sometimes add to it, too.  As I explain it to my five-year-old son, historic preservationists recycle old buildings.  We can't save everything, and sometimes we have to make room for new buildings of our own era.  If we choose carefully with how we fill in the spaces in between, not only do we perpetuate the authenticity of our places, we also have the potential to construct the historic buildings of the future.

Lessons From the Back Seat

Many people think of history as something to be visited in a museum, usually far away, mysterious and sepia-toned.  
That's not the whole story.
There is a lot more to history beyond artifacts in a box.  History isn't merely something you go visit in a museum – it's more tangible than that.  And right here, in our community, one part of history is how buildings and their surrounding context weave together to create a larger record of our collective mark on the landscape.  Some of our largest artifacts make up the built environment.  We're living in and around them every day.

My own story was a driving reason why I chose to work in historic preservation, literally, since I grew up in the backseat of a car. After starting out in Kentucky, my family moved all over the country following my father's contract work in the aerospace industry.  Between the ages of 4 and 18, I moved 20 times.  We crossed the Mississippi half a dozen times before I was in middle school.  No, I'm not talking about racking up frequent-flyer miles.  I'm talking about kickin' it old school from the back seat of a 1984 Datsun hatchback with your legs stuck to the hot vinyl.
We saw some incredible landscapes, visited some amazing towns, and lived in some spectacular places – like Savannah, Seattle, and southern California – and many places in between.  It's quite a study in contrasts, moving from the high desert of California with Joshua trees and adobe houses to the pattern-book brick homes of Zeeland, Michigan during a rainy spring and subsequent explosion of Tulip Time. Upon arrival in Michigan my poor cat, to whom grass was a foreign substance, literally freaked out and walked on her tip-toes.  Thanks to this incredible childhood, the textures of each place, each regional identity, even some of those bizarre experiences, remain emblazoned on my memory.
One of the things I learned from the back seat is that places transform into another slowly over time, then suddenly reveal themselves to be distinct. The terrain slides from flat as a pancake to rolling hills, then from foothills to mountains.  Edge cities crop up on the horizon, then the neon highway strip, the suburbs, and then you're there in the heart of that city place.  Each place had its own distinct vernacular, both in architecture and in way of speaking. 
Or, at least it did.  There's the rub – they had texture and regional identity, but now so many of our cities are becoming beiged.  Genericized. Vinylated.  Pick your term, you know what I'm talking about. Authenticity of place, or lack thereof.
"Not Savannah!" you say.  Yeah, not Savannah.  (Or Seattle, or many other real places I've lived.)  Do you know why?  That's right – because much of it has been covered in protective ordinances to help retain community character.  They have helped keep that city's heart recognizable, vibrant, and a damn popular place to shoot movies.  They've been wonderful economic development tools, tourist-attracting magnets, and the pride of many local businesses.  (Shhh! Don't mention these wonderful tools are called "historic districts.")

Historic districts help local communities determine their part of how the American landscape will appear in the next few decades.  There are many historic districts in Washtenaw County, and they are one piece of the puzzle, one tool in the toolbox, that work with other efforts toward maintaining our community's character and sense of place.  They are part of the reason why Depot Town's iconic store fronts are symbols of thriving businesses.  They are part of the reason why Manchester Village, the city of Saline, and downtown Chelsea retain their picturesque appearance, and they are why Gordon Hall's stately edifice still looms over Dexter Village.  And, historic districts are the #1 reason why Ann Arbor's South Main Street was named one of the "Great Places in America" by the American Planning Association.
It's more than just beautiful architecture and the restaurants scene.  It's about wise investment, too.  As mentioned in a report published by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, dramatic evidence can be seen in the case of Kalamazoo's downtown commercial historic district.  This report states that over the course of 30 years, beginning when Kalamazoo's commercial local historic district was designated, "property value growth far outpaced that in a similar, undesignated downtown area.  While property values in the local historic commercial district grew about 385%, those in the non-designated comparison area grew just 72%" in the same period of time. 
History is closer than you think.  It's something that we live with in our communities every day.  It's the buildings that we use, care for, and add to over time.  We have the opportunity to work together to revitalize our communities and participate in strengthening our economy without compromising our sense of place.  Through my work in historic preservation, I know I'm not driving this car, but I can at least help give direction from the back seat.