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Preserving our past

Feb 17, 2016

There are four larger-than-life cement statues on the lawn outside my office at Wayne State University. They are of Cadillac, LaSalle, Marquette and Gabriel Richard, the early French explorers who discovered Michigan and helped found Detroit.

They are magnificent, but they shouldn’t be there. They should be where they were intended to be – a couple miles away, high above the street, looking down from Detroit’s magnificent, baroque old early Victorian-era City Hall.

Fifty-five years ago, misguided city officials destroyed that architectural landmark in the name of progress before people who cared about historic preservation could stop them. They replaced it with a barren-looking park and an underground parking garage.

It was nearly half a century before an office building was finally built there. We take historic preservation more seriously now. That couldn’t happen today. In addition to local ordinances all across the state, Michigan passed a strong historic preservation act in 1970.

But two Republican legislators, State Representatives Jason Sheppard and Chris Afendoulis, are pushing bills that would gut and destroy our historic preservation laws, and make it very hard to not only preserve our heritage, but even to prevent neighbors from turning historic structures into eyesores.

Picture an Albert Kahn building with a flashing neon sign or vinyl siding. That’s not, of course, the way the sponsors are trying to spin it.

In a joint column in the Detroit Free Press, they argued

“our proposals would permit historic preservation while giving private property owners a greater voice.”

They don’t admit they are trying to destroy historic preservation in this state; they call what they are trying to do “modernizing it.” They say they want “pragmatic preservation.”

What they don’t advertise is that their bills would make it very hard to maintain any historic districts at all. If a city does establish one – Corktown in Detroit, say – it could only last for ten years, and then its status would have to be renewed by a popular vote, not just of the people who live there, but of the entire city.

In many cases, all it would take to torpedo that would be a few radio ads by developers – and make no mistake about it, these are bills designed to allow developers to do whatever they want wherever they want. Those who care about history in Michigan are worried.

John Gallagher, the mild-manned author who covers architecture for the Detroit Free Press, says “this proposed legislation goes way too far.”

Nancy Finegood, who heads the Michigan Historic Preservation Network, sent out a detailed email noting that these bills would “reduce local government control and negatively and significantly impact local historic districts all over the state,” by creating “extremely high burdens to create and keep local districts,” while making it very easy to eliminate them.

Governor Rick Snyder has been his usual noncommittal self about these bills, but if they land on his desk, he’s likely to sign them. I asked State Senator Steve Bieda, who may know and care about history more than any other legislator, what he thought.

He agreed their effect would be horrible, but added “they are Republican bills. If the DeVos family wants them, they will happen."

Let’s hope the Amway heirs think more of our heritage than that.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.