2013-02-08 / Top News

Historic Districts Adopted by City

By Wesley Maurer, Jr.

The City of Mackinac Island adopted two downtown historic districts Wednesday, January 9, culminating years of debate and paving the way for what many residents and visitors hope is a more organized and effective way to preserve the historic character of the city’s downtown area, from Marquette Park, below Fort Mackinac, to the public school, below Grand Hotel. And, while the new designation, which has the authority of state statute, puts more teeth into preserving historic buildings and maintaining the historical context of the city, professionals in the field point out that it is as much about finding solutions to the conflicts brought about by modern development. It is not meant to stop growth and development, but to conform it to the historic aspects of the town that draw visitors to Mackinac Island in the first place.

The two districts, one covering the downtown commercial area and the other covering the residential neighborhood to the west, were approved none too soon, advocates have pointed out. The general rule for such districts is that at least half of the structures contribute to the historical designation, either through age or character, and, in the downtown area, the city has only eight or so buildings to spare. Some of them are being proposed for demolition.

Demolition of the McNally Cottage, first proposed several years ago, is what started the latest push to protect the city’s historic character, and demolition figured significantly in arguments against adoption of the two districts. It will be a major issue in upcoming deliberations of the Historic District Commission.

January 9, following a second public hearing on the proposed districts, the city council voted 5- 1 to adopt them, the lone dissenter being Alderman Frank Bloswick, who said he couldn’t yet vote for measures he felt could jeopardize the downtown business climate, referring to remarks made at the public hearing by businessman Steve Moskwa. But the council vote pretty much echoed the response from citizens, both on and off the Island, who, in testimony at the two public hearings, and in letters to the city and in the Mackinac Island Town Crier, generally supported the plan.

Mayor Margaret Doud announced at the council meeting that she would appoint two additional members to the Historic District Commission (HDC) within the next two weeks, enlarging the board to seven, but, two weeks later, said she would leave that decision to the HDC. Heretofore, the HDC has governed Mackinac Island’s only other historic district, in Hubbard’s Annex, a cottage community on the West Bluff.

The ordinances approved to establish the two local districts took effect January 29.

The HDC met Wednesday, January 16, at noon, to review its by-laws and lay out procedures to deal with downtown construction projects already being designed, and some smaller, routine maintenance projects that will now come under its scrutiny. It took no action, however, because it could not raise a quorum, and has scheduled another meeting for Tuesday, February 12, at 1 p.m.

The mayor’s new appointments to the HDC will be important, according to Amanda Reintjes, Greater Michigan Field Representative for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and National Trust for Historic Preservation, who attended the meetings last Wednesday and whose groups are poised to provide assistance to the city in the coming months.

“A commission is only as strong as its members,” she said, “and they only are able to enforce ordinances if they are really behind what they want to do. Typically, it’s recommended that historic district commissioners are people who have a vested interest in historic preservation.”

The HDC is chaired by Andrew Doud and members are Bob Benser, Brian Dunnigan, Christopher Straus, and Jennifer King.

Councilwoman Anneke Myers suggested at the meeting that the city provide administrative support to the commission, possibly letting it share a paid secretary with the planning commission, since both will work with the same projects, and her proposal was discussed by the Finance Committee January 16 and approved later that day by the city council. The planning commission secretary has been Kelly Bean, who is also the mayor’s assistant, but Ms. Bean has resigned and has left the Island and her additional duties as the planning commission secretary, and that of the new historic district commission secretary, have been assigned to her replacement, Tammy Frazier. Each secretarial post pays $107.63 a month plus $63.72 per meeting.

The secretary or an administrative assistant could be delegated to approve many of the minor maintenance projects that are routinely allowed, but which will now need HDC review. Roof, window, and siding replacement, as long as the materials conform to the preservation guidelines, can be approved by an administrator, Ms. Reintjes said, allowing commissioners to focus on the larger projects.

One helpful tool for the HDC will be the comprehensive document called Downtown Mackinac Island Historic Guidelines, which the city commissioned in 2010 and which will provide much of the basis for deliberation on historic preservation matters. It will also be helpful to building owners and their architects. The document is available on the Town Crier Web site under the Historic Preservation Documents tab, and discusses the historic features that characterize the downtown area.

The vote to enact the two historic districts followed an afternoon of testimony.

“In my years as mayor, I have always stated that we are a living, breathing, year-around community, but we cannot forget our historic significance,” said Mayor Doud prior to the city council vote. “I think it’s important that each member of the city council has had time to consider this important matter. I have not been vocal on this matter because I think it was important for each one of them to come to terms to what they think is best for Mackinac Island on this very significant subject.”

She noted that the HDC “will need all our help and support as we move forward on this journey.”

Adoption of the two downtown historic districts was especially rewarding to Anthony Trayser, who brought historic preservation to public attention through his support group, Save Our Island, which tried to protect McNally Cottage from demolition.

“The real outcome of this is that the Island is put back in charge of its heritage,” he told the Town Crier. “The businesses now see that they need to do things which help the Island, and show that they care for the Island, especially the Islanders, the ancestral history of the Island, and that they are going to support the circle of life that the Island represents, that they will protect its inhabitants and provide for them.

“It is a milestone for the state, as well, knowing now that the Island is protecting the most important historic piece of real estate in Michigan, and that the cultural, religious, and spiritual history of the Island is now safe, and the true meaning of the Island’s ancient native ancestry will now be protected and known.”

While McNally Cottage couldn’t be saved, it served the purpose of calling attention to the Island’s historic resources and to the need to be concerned about them, observed Nan Taylor, a historic preservation consultant, formerly with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Nancy May, who was also instrumental in promoting the historic preservation effort by taking surveys, soliciting support, and documenting the changing face of the downtown over the years, noted at last Wednesday’s public hearing that, since June, the city had received 184 letters in favor of the two proposed districts and only 11 letters against. Island residents, business owners, and people with property in the proposed districts contributed 118 of the letters, and friends and visitors of Mackinac Island submitted another 66.

Among others giving testimony at the hearing, Marta Olson observed, “Mackinac is cherished not just by us, its residents, but by people all over Michigan and far beyond. In fact, the stewardship of these historic treasures is essential. In addition, it’s important to keep Mackinac authentic in an increasingly artificial world. Local businesses currently have a unique competitive advantage against cookie-cutter tourist destinations. We want to ensure an ongoing value for future generations of business owners. In short, Mackinac is an authentic village, not a reconstructed one, and maintaining its integrity is good for business. In respect to prices and property values, the rising tide created by historic districts allows business and property owners, alike, to reap greater economic benefits. Historic district guidelines would also bring a consistency to the process of considering issues of development.”

Trish Martin, speaking on behalf of Trinity Episcopal Church, said, “It would indeed be a disgrace to have Mackinac Island become merely a plastic, pseudo- Victorian resort community with fake historic buildings, not to mention losing its historic landmark status and its draw for many visitors who travel to see it each year.”

The late contractor Jim Francis, noted Mike Hart, supported craftsmen on the Island for two generations, “doing what we now call historic preservation, but then it was simply called maintenance, repair, and replacement. A crew could go into a structure that had barely one right angle in it, bring it to standards, and leave with not one right angle in it yet, because a craftsman knew how to do it,” he said.

Councilman Armin Porter agreed, noting that in the remodeling of his 160-year-old home on the Island, “the level is the least used tool.”

Mr. Hart also noted that Mackinac Island doesn’t just belong to the city, but to all of the state.

“Mackinac Island is recognized as the jewel and crown in Michigan’s now-second-largest industry. Should we, locally, be seen as unable or unwilling to protect that state treasure,” he said, “consequences none of us would like to see would evolve.”

In addition to about 30 new letters submitted, others to support adoption of the districts at the hearing were Robin Dorman, Kent Weber, and Claire Dunnigan, a college student, who told the city council that local historic preservation districts would allow the community to pass its historic assets to future generations.

Business owner Steve Moskwa, who served on the Historic District Study Committee, which inventoried the historic resources and, in October, recommended the city adopt the two proposed downtown historic districts, said that, while he believes the overall concept of historic districts and historical significance is important, he has reservations about adoption without further education, exploration of incentives to alleviate the economic burden from property owners, and inclusion of Grand Hotel and other excluded structures. He said downtown property owners have not been convinced that historic districts will work to their advantage.

“I think that the people downtown that are property owners have to buy into a historic district,” he said, “and I think there should be more work done to explain the significance to them or the benefits to them.”

Many of the downtown buildings that would be protected, he noted, “were built in a hurry,” without the benefit of today’s building codes.

“Many of them are difficult to save,” he said. “And I understand that one of the main reasons that people want to pass the historic district is because there is the demolition part of the ordinance, which is important, I acknowledge that. But for many people, there is a very real possibility their property value will go down.”

Some of the buildings, he noted, were not built to withstand the elements of time. “Most of these buildings are 100 years old. It’s not cheap or easy to maintain them, especially in today’s economic conditions,” he said.

He and Amanda Reintjes disagreed about whether property values would increase or decrease under historic preservation, she testifying that such values have been shown in long-term Michigan studies to go up 10% to 20%.

Council members did not speak for or against the districts, except by their votes. Alderman Jason St. Onge noted his belief in the individual rights of property owners, but, in citing his rationale for voting in favor of the districts, echoed Ms. Reintjes’ contention that historic buildings are unique and that, once they disappear, they are gone forever, while the legislation to create the districts could be amended in the future, if necessary.

Mayor Doud noted that her family has shown, by example, that it favors historic preservation in its care of Windermere Hotel and maintenance of Windermere Point for public view of the water.

Mr. Bloswick’s lone vote against the two proposals was countered by council members Sam Barnwell, Anneke Myers, Armin Porter, Jason St. Onge, and Dan Musser III, who voted to create the districts.

“It was a historic meeting,” quipped Iroquois Hotel owner Margaret McIntire.

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