How Historic Preservation Can Help SE Michigan

The New Street Lofts are in a building that shouldn't be here today. Downtown Mt. Clemens' newest loft development is in an old stone church that had been abandoned, burned and, against expectation, reborn.

The New Street structure started out as the Gilbert Baptist Church until its congregation left in the 1960s. That led to a life as a warehouse until a fire gutted the structure, leaving only the two-foot-thick walls standing. Somehow the former church dodged the urban renewal wrecking ball and was rehabbed into office space before becoming a private photography studio.

It stayed alive long enough to catch the attention of a developer with a passion for historic renovation. Ted Schollenberger took out the bricks
in the window bays in favor of glass, returning the structure to its once grand status as a local landmark just in time for its 100th birthday.

"History is something that fascinates all of us," Schollenberger says. "I don't know but there is something about a 100-year-old building that is cool. The building has been around longer than us and I like giving buildings like this a chance at another 100 years."

Michael Robinson thought the same thing when he owned the building before Schollenberger. What made it attractive was its uniqueness. It has a look that can't be easily duplicated today and sturdiness that many builders choose not to replicate. Not to mention it has a story that could only be bought with time.

"This community was filled with beautiful buildings and architecture. Many of them were torn down," Robinson says. "This was an eyesore to some people and should have been torn down in their eyes. But it also gives a hint to what people were thinking back then. You don't want everything to look like a strip mall."

The old stone church looks like anything but. The same goes for many of the buildings that make downtown Mt. Clemens one of the most vibrant city centers in Metro Detroit and arguably the only one in Macomb County.

Saving the old stone church provides six more homes in downtown and it serves as a catalyst for the 34-unit Pine Street Place development Schollenberger is planning to build in the church's old parking lot. A development that wouldn't be feasible if not for the old stone church and the other surrounding historic structures.

"It's important for all of the clichéd reasons," Schollenberger says. "They're beautiful and they're historic. That's why people come to downtown Mt. Clemens because they can't get this in their little sub division."

Got Generica?

He's talking, of course, about the bland, cookie-cutter suburbs that make up modern-day Generica - a land of fast-food drive throughs, strip malls, surface parking lots and sidewalk-less McMansions that are equally interchangeable and unremarkable.

"Generica isn’t just a California phenomenon or just a city or suburban phenomena," says Donovan Rypkema, a renowned historical preservationist. "Generica is happening everywhere and I would suggest it is at the heart of the challenge of economic development, smart growth and place economics. Generica undermines all five senses – the sense of place, of evolution, of ownership, of identity and of community."

Rypkema is principal of PlaceEconomics, a Washington, D.C.-based real estate and economic development-consulting firm. He also authored "The Economics of Historic Preservation" and is an unabashed historic structure hugger, making intricate arguments for preserving America and against Generica.

"Generica diminishes each of the five senses. Preservation of the historic built environment enhances each of the five senses, and constitutes the physical manifestation of a community of memory," Rypkema says. "Historic preservation builds both community and place. Generica destroys both community and place."

The numbers behind his arguments are staggering. Those numbers all revolve around money that provides jobs, household income, tax base and tourist dollars.

He points out that for every $1 million in manufacturing production in Michigan results in an average creation of 14 jobs and $571,000 in local household income. Put those same dollars into rehabbing a historic structure and 20.5 jobs are created with $800,000 in local household income. Think of the extra economic impact created by restoring the Book Cadillac and Pick-Fort Shelby hotels in downtown Detroit instead of leveling them. On top of that a community can employ its building trades people by renovating 2 to 3 percent of its building stock each year.

Preserving those historic places also brings in more money through vehicles like tourism. Rypkema says people visiting historic sites spend 2.5 times as much money compared to other visitors. They tend to stay longer, spend more per day and have a greater economic impact.

"After decades of declaring that communities had to choose between historic preservation and economic development, professionals in the field are finally realizing that is a false choice," Rypkema says. "That instead historic preservation is an excellent vehicle for economic development."

For both short- and long-term. Property values for buildings in historic areas increase more on average than those that are not. Not to mention the prices for those properties are more stable in turbulent times. The more stringent the historic district usually results in the higher appreciation and better price stability because they preserve the context of the neighborhood.

"Nobody is paying a premium for the privilege of having to go and appear before some goofy historic district commission," Rypkema says. "Rather it is the assurance that the lunatic across the street isn’t going to be allowed to do something with his property that will have an adverse impact on the value of your property."

And then there are the feel-good arguments for historic preservation, like sustainability, smart growth, attracting a creative class and affordable housing.

For instance, 25 percent of everything that goes into a landfill is construction waste, much of which comes from razing buildings. Tearing down one building erases the environmental benefit of recycling 1.344 million aluminum cans, Rypkema says.

"We've not only wasted an historic building, we've wasted months of diligent recycling by the good people of our community," Rypkema says. "Now why doesn't every environmentalist have a bumper sticker saying 'Recycle your aluminum cans AND your historic buildings.'"

Even though the 1990s was the decade environmentalism really started to come into its own, 772,000 housing units were razed. Five hundred and seventy seven units of mature housing stock were torn down each day on average over the last 30 years. A vast majority of those were not victims of natural disasters but human discretion. To replace all of the pre-1950s housing in America would cost $335 billion dollars or basically another Iraq War.

These are the neighborhoods that were built on the principals of density, walkability, mass transit and proximity to life's necessities, like schools and businesses. Think all the things new urbanists try to replicate in cornfields in exurbia with a plastic Noviesque Generica.

No wonder the creative class and those seeking opportunity flock to historic neighborhoods filled with established character and low housing costs. Most of the existing building stock built before World War II can accommodate those short on cash and long on sweat equity looking for solid places to live and do business.

"It is no accident that the creative, imaginative, small start-up firm isn't located in the corporate office campus, the industrial park or the shopping center – they simply cannot afford the rents there," Rypkema says. "Older and historic commercial buildings play that role, nearly always with no subsidy or assistance of any kind."

Putting the best Crofoot forward

Blair McGowan fits a lot of the stereotypes Rypkema describes. The local preservationist returned utility to a number of vacant historic structures that most other people had given up on, such as St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit and Clutch Cargo's in Pontiac.

His latest turnaround project is the Crofoot in downtown Pontiac. The old building was vacant, boarded up and staring the wrecking ball in the eye until McGowan and his team turned it into Metro Detroit's hottest new concert venue. He did so by respecting the building's history when he took it from fire-sale prices to prime downtown real-estate, something he had done before with St. Andrew's Hall and Clutch Cargo's.

"These buildings were what we could afford," McGowan says. "There were old buildings in central cities where prices were low and we could afford to do business there."

They also had dense populations and existing infrastructure to support them. The type of things needed to make the developments sustainable over the long term. Compare that to cornfield development where infrastructure needs to be built from scratch (and as cheaply as possible).

McGowan not only reused the building and many of the materials in it, but also the name of the builder. Michael Crofoot was a prominent businessman; county probate judge and attorney who helped build the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in downtown Detroit. That type of story made naming the venue after Crofoot inevitable and appropriate.

"We called it the Crofoot because that is a name that will last," says McGowan,
adding the same line of thought was used when naming St. Andrew's Hall by utilizing the historic 1940s sign that still stands guard over that venue's entrance. "When we built the (Crofoot's) sign we built it so it would last 100 years."

Aged to perfection

That longevity gives people comfort. Such historic areas give people a sense of familiarity even if they have never been there before.

"We all can’t be historians and we all can't be developers," McGowan says. "But we can all appreciate history."

It's that type of connection to the past that gives older communities an advantage when it comes to competing with Generica Township. Tear down all of the old buildings in downtown Royal Oak, build the standard disposable, car-centric new buildings in place of them and what separates it from Troy besides higher taxes and more bureaucracy?

Not to mention that inner-ring suburbs like Royal Oak have the vibrant downtowns so many other outer-ring suburbs crave but can't build. The absence of history and the historical design principals where pedestrians are king make traditional downtowns work and doom most of Generica's downtowns to failure.

"I cannot identify a single example of a sustained success story in downtown revitalization where historic preservation wasn’t a key component of that strategy. Not a one," Rypkema says. "Conversely the examples of very expensive failures in downtown revitalization have nearly all had the destruction of historic buildings as a major element."

It's those types of historic buildings that need to be preserved one way or the other. Historical preservation purists often say old buildings need to be restored just the way they were to serve their original purpose. But more times than not that is often not feasible if not downright impossible.

That's where adaptive reuse comes into play. Jim Schneider, president of Royal Oak-based Schneider+Smith Architects, points out that preserving the building to serve a modern purpose often works just as well as pure historical preservation.

For instance, the St. Clair Edison building on South Main in downtown Royal Oak once served as a power plant for streetcars on Woodward Avenue. Its design had become so obsolete (not to mention that street cars had gone the way of the Dodo in Metro Detroit) it seemed destined for demolition. But a developer saw an opportunity to take a one-of-a-kind building and transform it into office space and a wine shop.

The same can be said for the 1920s-era Consumers Gas building in downtown Royal Oak. Schneider's firm worked on the plans to restore the exterior to its original state by removing layers of "God-awful" 1960s-era siding and letting the structure's skin shine the way it was intended to do.

"Those buildings are the soul of the community,"
Schneider says. "That's what gives the community a sense of place."

Those old buildings are the key component to the unwitting disciples of Jane Jacobs who want to live in truly urban settings. These are the people, mostly in their twenties and thirties, who are abandoning suburban bland and fueling the back-to-the-inner-city movement. They're looking for communities with history, authenticity and identity.

"If we don't appreciate the work of the people who came before us we condemn our own life's work to elimination because the people after us won't appreciate our work," McGowan says. "It comes down to respect. Respect for ourselves and respect for others."

Jon Zemke is the News Editor for metromode and Concentrate. He wrote a similar story for Concentrate yesterday and it's no accident he lives in a historic, turn-of-the-century car dealership turned into lofts in Detroit.


Ted Schollenberger in front of the New Street Lofts

Downtown Mount Clemens

Macomb County building -
Mount Clemens

Donovan Rypkema courtesy photo

Blair McGowan, owner of the Crofoot - Pontiac

The Crofoot building courtesy photo - Pontiac

Consumer Gas building - Royal Oak

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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