Blog: Patrick McCauley

With strip malls and big-box manses gettin' way long in the tooth, bygone architecture is the mod new style. Patrick McCauley, vice-chair of the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, believes local historic districts are what's needed for more vibrant communities.

Post 1: What's the Difference Between Vermont and Michigan?

I love to travel around the United States and since meeting my wife Andrea, I've been traveling a whole lot more.  We love going to places we've never been before, and we love getting there via the state highways and back roads.  It's a great way to see how people really live and what these towns that are off the beaten path are really like. The more I travel around the country, and the more I explore Washtenaw County and the rest of the state, it's becoming clearer and clearer how important local historic districts are in maintaining what is great in our respective communities.  When my wife and I are stopping in or just driving through various towns, you can tell right away which ones have local historic districts and which ones don't.  Guess which ones look more prosperous and inviting?

Among the general public (and even among our elected leaders) there seems to be a lack of understanding as to how local historic districts work and what the point of them really is.  Basically, in local historic districts, "permanent" changes to historic or "contributing" buildings within the district are regulated by a board or commission that interprets the local preservation ordinance.  Here in Ann Arbor, our Historic District Commission is appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.  The job of this commission is to interpret the city's historic preservation ordinance and follow the Secretary of the Interior's standards for historic preservation ( ) as they relate to the individual cases before the commission.  

Different historic districts have different standards they follow.  For instance, the Ypsilanti Historic District and the Corktown Historic District in Detroit regulate the colors you can paint your building, but Ann Arbor's Historic District Commission does not.  The key word in "local historic district" is "local".  State and National Register Historic Districts are purely honorary titles that don't regulate changes to a designated building. Only a local historic district can do this.  This way, there are no outside groups or organizations regulating your community. It's all under the control of the citizens and their local government.

For me, the main difference between communities that have local historic districts and those that don't is the idea of a collective focus.  Communities that establish local historic districts have determined that preserving historic buildings and their character-defining features is in the public interest, and contributes to the character, feel, and economic prosperity of the community.  Ann Arbor's Main Street is a great example of this collective focus.  All of the changes made to the buildings on Main Street over the last 20 years have been made through the lens of the local historic district.  Renovations and restorations of old buildings have all had to follow the standards of the preservation ordinance, and it's hard to argue with the end result.  A coherent and charming streetscape has been created, and the bustling and dynamic business blocks have been maintained.  It's hard to imagine that people once thought (and often still think) that it's a better idea to raze these beautiful, brick, business blocks and replace them with new buildings, or worst of all, parking lots!  
"Character" is a hard thing to create in a community.  While certain new developments around the country have tried to replicate the timelessness of historic streetscapes with "new urban" developments, it's hard to top the authentic, romantic, and often quirky character of a streetscape that has developed over the last 175 years, like Ann Arbor's Main Street.  

When I travel to a different community, I like to try to guess where the historic district begins and ends.  It's usually pretty clear no matter where you are in America, from Salem, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon.  Local historic districts can't force an owner to restore their historic building, so the process of revitalization and restoration can take time.  In the case of Main Street and the Old West Side, the historic character of these areas gets stronger and stronger with each passing year, as aluminum or asbestos siding is removed, historic details are restored, and the pride in the neighborhood and its individual character grows.  

One of my favorite historic places to see the difference between a local historic district and a standard neighborhood in Washtenaw County is the city of Ypsilanti.  As you drive into Ypsilanti on Washtenaw Avenue, pay attention to your surroundings.  When you pass the Water Tower, you'll be surrounded by student housing in various states of disrepair.  Many of these amazing historic houses have been "remuddled" or "F.U.B.A.R.ed" as I like to say (look it up).  Then you get to Hamilton Street, which is the beginning of the local historic district.  Most of these properties are also student rentals, but the overall feel of the neighborhood changes from one of blight and disrepair to one of charming streetscapes and beautifully maintained houses.  Then you hit Huron Street, and then Depot Town, and the effectiveness of the local historic district becomes even clearer.  Again, the historic district can't force people to restore their buildings, but it's a process that builds a stronger and more beautiful community over time.  Like similar towns in Michigan, Ypsilanti has a long way to go after being battered by de-industrialization and suburban sprawl.  Its historic district has given redevelopment a focus, has fostered civic pride in the community, and helped to preserve the beautiful buildings that make Ypsilanti a unique destination.

While every neighborhood or town can't be a historic district, many of Michigan's larger cities have done a pretty good job of preserving their history and character with their local historic districts.  One place where we haven't done a very good job is the preservation of our rural areas and our small towns and villages.  Washtenaw County has had some success in the preservation of green space, and a number of rural houses have been designated as individual historic districts, but many small towns and rural areas are quickly losing their historic and rural character through "remuddling" and poor land use. Driving through the rural towns and farm country of our state, you can see the great potential for many of these places, yet the individual and historic character is quickly eroding.  In many cases, the individual and historic character of these small towns could be the starting point for redevelopment and future prosperity.  

It's interesting to compare the rural areas of Vermont (which is one of the most rural states in the U.S.) with the rural areas of Washtenaw County and Michigan.  

When my wife and I are driving through a small Michigan town that has seen better days, I always say, "If this town were in Vermont, it would be the most charming town ever!"  The difference between Vermont and Michigan is that Vermont has tried to protect these small towns and villages and the rural character of the state through its 100+ local historic districts.  Many of these historic districts are tiny villages with perhaps 10 houses, while others are long stretches of rural roads known as "rural historic districts" that preserve not only the architecture, but the farm land and barns too.  These small towns in Vermont have become havens for artists and tourists, and though some are in the middle of nowhere, they don't look abandoned and isolated – they look prosperous!  Michigan could learn a thing or two from this.  As our machine shops and factories close up in our small towns, we need to think of new ways to attract economic growth to these communities.  The preservation of historic architecture and "character", and the tourism and culture that it attracts is one way that we can grow and prosper in the more rural parts of our state.  Vermont may have the mountains, but we have all the lakes!  Let's give the tourists one more reason to visit our more rural and remote towns!

I think that many of our local leaders and planners have forgotten that historic preservationists were the original "smart growth" advocates and urban pioneers.  Back in the 1960s and 1970s, they were some of the first people to reject the suburban sprawl model of growth, and encourage the redevelopment and restoration of our urban core and near-downtown neighborhoods.  Here in Ann Arbor, historic preservationists were fighting against the demolition of our downtown core when people were advocating its redevelopment into a more suburban model to compete with the strip malls with loads of parking just outside of town.  

Today it's clear that those who were advocating the preservation of our historic downtowns and near-downtown neighborhoods were on the right side of history.  With each passing year, Michigan's local historic districts look better and better, while the historic character and charm of our neighborhoods that aren't designated continues to decline.  To put it simply, they look like the types of places where people want to live!  Give it another 20 years and we'll see which neighborhoods have the higher property values and are the more desirable places to live.  I'd put my money on the local historic districts.