2012-02-11 / Top News

City Incentives May Reward Restoration

By Matt Mikus

A workshop regarding new Mackinac Island design guidelines for downtown development Monday, February 6, sparked discussion on how to encourage local business owners to join in on changing the downtown area into a historic district. Ideas discussed included offering incentives to commercial property owners to not develop their property, but restore and maintain existing buildings.

The meeting was attended by members of the Mackinac Island Planning Commission, with a number of Mackinac Island City Council members and a few concerned citizens and business owners. The purpose was to edit a design guidelines manual for the downtown area in a way that would be acceptable to building owners.

An example came in a section of the manual covering buildings along the waterfront.

“New buildings should appear in scale with those seen historically,” the paragraph read, “by dividing larger structures into smaller modules and by providing variations in building heights, mixing one, two and three stories.”

That language appears to threaten the potential of business owners to expand their properties to their maximum potential, said Andrew Doud, owner of Doud’s Market and chairman of the historic district committee. While the guidelines are only suggestions, Mr. Doud believed the city should try and reduce every possible threat to forming a historic downtown district.

By forming a historic district, the city would gain access to the only permanent means to prevent demolition of an aging building. A district would also preserve Mackinac Island’s designation as a National Historic Landmark. The National Park Service is concerned about the city’s ability to preserve historic resources and is monitoring its efforts.

Two districts are being considered, one that stretches from Fort Street to the Windermere Hotel, including both Market and Main Streets, and another from Windermere Hotel to the school, including Market Street, Mahoney Avenue, and parts of Cadotte Avenue.

A public hearing will be held June 16 for all property owners within the proposed downtown historic district, at which a straw vote is planned. The advisory vote will be used to gauge support for the district and is not binding. Business owners who cannot attend could also send their opinion in a letter. The historic district committee will compile the feedback from the public and make a recommendation to the City Council. The Council will have a year to decide whether to establish the district.

The threat of losing the city’s historical value requires the city to address the matter immediately, Planning Commissioner Candi Dunnigan said.

“Nobody’s going to pick up the mantle,” Mrs. Dunnigan said, “We have properties right now that are disintegrating. Yes, we have to compromise with business owners in order to get this historic district to work. It’s either now or never.”

If a historic district is formed, the proposed guidelines would be available to help property owners and developers understand the concepts of historic preservation as they apply to Mackinac Island.

Suggesting that a historic district could limit a business owner from expanding a building to its maximum 40 feet height could jeopardize adoption of the historic district, Mr. Doud said.

“If you want to get it done, give them forty feet, then give them the historic districts,” Mr. Doud said, “A lot of us want a demolition ordinance, and the businesses want the maximum three stories.”

City architect Rick Neumann suggested that the language be changed to clearly state that varying building heights is only a suggestion, not a mandate. Council member Mike Hart suggested adding, “The design goal is to maintain the historic variety of differing heights along the waterfront.”

Mr. Doud stressed the importance of clearly communicating that a historic district does not restrict development.

“There’s a lot of misinformation,” agreed resident Nancy May. “Everyone thinks this is so restrictive, and it really isn’t.”

Rob McKay, a historical architect from the State Historic Preservation Office, explained that the guidelines are not a rule that property owners have to follow. The design guidelines serve as a general idea of what the city would like to see within the downtown area. Regulating land use is a function of the zoning ordinance, not the guidelines.

With a design guideline, building developers and property owners can review the document and decide what kind of architecture is appropriate for the building and the district.

The historic district commission would act as an advisory board to a developer, he added, offering suggestions to allow both development and preservation of historic buildings.

As an example, to encourage varying building heights, Mr. McKay said other communities had set up transfer of development systems, where a property owner could sell the right to develop a second or third story.

Council member Anneke Myers suggested the city could offer to buy development rights as an incentive to leave buildints at current heights. To fund such a program, she proposed a 3% transfer-of-property tax. Current business owners wouldn’t be forced to contribute.

Such a fund could also help business owners preserve historic buildings by offering grants for restoration projects.

Taxable value is based on the maximum allowable use of property, said Kelly Bean, assistant to the mayor. By selling or buying development rights, the amount of revenue the city could receive could decrease.

Mr. Hart said that one of the main resources Mackinac Island has is its history, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to preserve it. If Mackinac Island loses its historic status, he said, all properties on the Island would lose value.

“Everyone will have to give up something,” Mr. Hart said, “some more than others. The question is, do I give more than I receive? The long-term answer is no. You actually preserve your value.”

A copy of the Downtown Mackinac Island Design Guidelines is available at the city clerk’s office and on the Town Crier Web site, www.mackinac islandnews.com, under the lefthand tab, Historic Preservation Documents.

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