City to explore new ways to regulate construction after rejecting historic district concept

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published April 7, 2021

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GROSSE POINTE CITY — While Grosse Pointe City does have its share of beautiful older homes, the City won’t be creating a historic district to preserve them.

After about a year of extensive study and debate, City officials decided against pursuing the creation of historic districts for a number of reasons, chief among them being opposition by a number of residents who live in the neighborhoods that had been considered for historic district designation.

During a meeting by Zoom March 15, the Grosse Pointe City Council voted unanimously to discontinue the historic district study and lift a moratorium on construction and demolition in areas zoned Estate-Residential.

For more than a decade, Mayor Sheila Tomkowiak said, the City “has worked to protect those grand old homes” that are still standing. Officials hope the City will be able to continue to enjoy its unique housing stock, but it will need to find another way to preserve its significant structures.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not a fit for us at this time,” Tomkowiak said of historic district creation.

City Councilman Donald Parthum Jr. echoed that sentiment.

“I think we all had the best intentions when we went into this process, and that was to preserve the character of the community,” Parthum said.

Officials said they started the historic district process to see if it would work for the City.

“There’s no hidden agenda,” City Councilman Christopher Walsh said. “There’s no forgone conclusion. We’re all trying to figure out what’s the best thing we can do, not only for the district, but for the whole city. … It was clear homeowners in this district did not have an appetite for creating a (historic) district (in their neighborhood).”

George Yoo was among the Lakeland Street residents who opposed the historic district, which would have applied to his street. Yoo said he and his neighbors love their homes and do their best to maintain them, but they feared the historic district designation would make repairs and renovations much more expensive and time consuming, given the different permitting process required for such a district and a different set of standards that would be imposed on their homes. He and fellow opponents also feared that their homes would be harder to sell and might lose value.

“We are happy that the city council heard its citizens and came to a decision that represented its voters,” Yoo said by email after the council vote.

Peter Huebner, another Lakeland Street resident, addressed the council during the Zoom meeting.

“Thank you for listening to the residents and the concerns many have had about (this) subject,” Huebner said.

Former City Mayor and Council member Christopher Boettcher weighed in on this issue, as well.

“I’m really proud of you guys for listening to the voices in the community,” Boettcher said. “I think you guys made an admirable decision as to which direction to take as a council.”

City officials said it was never their plan to sneak something past residents.

“I believe our process was completely transparent and remains transparent,” City Councilman Terence Thomas said.

City Councilman Daniel Williams said the City followed all of the appropriate steps and “there was nothing nefarious” about their actions. He said he felt that many of the concerns raised by residents came from “a lack of full understanding as to how these (historic districts) operate.”

City Councilwoman Maureen Juip said historic district designation would have “come with some tax breaks” that could have assisted homeowners with the often steep costs of repairing and maintaining these older structures. Like her fellow council members, she thanked the volunteers who served on the historic district study committee and the residents who shared their opinions with the council.

“We hear you,” Juip said.

This particular chapter might be closed, but the question of what to do regarding new construction remains, Walsh noted.

“Everyone cares about what is being built in the City,” Walsh said.

Parthum agreed, saying they need either a new ordinance or new design standards going forward, especially for properties in the Estate-Residential districts.

“The bottom line is, we’ve got to do something to address some of the issues that have arisen,” Williams said.

Williams warned that residents might find a new ordinance more burdensome than a historic district commission, which he argued has more flexibility to work with homeowners.

“If we put an ordinance in place that has strict standards … it can be much more difficult and much more draconian to get variances,” Williams said. “There are going to be a lot of people who may not like the result.”

Huebner — who opposed historic district designation — said he won’t be one of them. Huebner said he “would fully support … tightening down” the city’s ordinances, especially with regard to new construction.

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