Grosse Pointe City enacts 6-month moratorium on estate district demolition

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published August 11, 2020

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GROSSE POINTE CITY — Officials in Grosse Pointe City are exploring ways they might be able to protect historical homes from being torn down.

During a July 20 meeting via Zoom, the Grosse Pointe City Council voted unanimously in favor of a six-month moratorium on demolition permits for primary and coach houses in the Estate Residential, or E-R, zoning district, as well as a six-month moratorium on permits for new homes in the E-R zoning district. The City has four areas that fall into E-R zoning. City Councilwoman Maureen Juip, whose father lives in one of the districts, recused herself from the vote.

“Because there are these pending transactions and possible transactions, we think it’s important that a moratorium (be imposed) … in order to preserve the character of the homes we find in the estate district,” City Manager Pete Dame said.

City Planner Julie Connochie, of McKenna Associates, said there were two different but related matters City leaders might want to look into. One is the creation of historical districts, and the other is the creation of a set of design standards. The City could opt to create one, both or neither.

Connochie said regulatory guidelines are “rooted in the master plan” from 2012, which calls for the City to “develop clear and reasonable zoning standards.”

“There are good things in place that we have done,” she continued. “The missing piece is these historic design guidelines.”

Design guidelines could include height limits, lot sizes, colors and materials, façade variations, types of roofs and other criteria, Connochie said. They would be tailored to an individual district, and the City would have a range of styles that would be acceptable within that district, she said.

An initial step toward the creation of historic districts would be to authorize a study and conduct an inventory of City houses, Connochie said. Such an inventory would need to be undertaken by a federally qualified historical architect who would look at individually qualifying assets and contributing buildings, she said. There would also have to be a public hearing to discuss possible historical districts and their boundaries, Connochie said. This could lead to the creation of a historic preservation ordinance and a historic preservation committee to administer the ordinance and oversee construction and exterior improvements in the district.

One of the reasons City officials want to put a pause on certain new developments is because the council approved a controversial lot split at 250 Washington Road May 18. Juip recused herself from that vote, as well. City officials said they didn’t want to approve the lot split, but because it would result in two new lots that were in keeping with City standards in that area, they legally had no choice but to vote in favor of it.

One early concept for the lot split called for a condominium development of two to four condo units, but as City Councilman Daniel Williams noted at a June 15 City Council meeting, “We don’t really have a proposal” for the new lot created by the lot split.

However, officials said condos wouldn’t be allowed anyway on that property because it’s zoned for single-family housing.

“We do have an ordinance that prevents multi-family developments in an E-R zone,” Williams said at the June meeting. “We are going to do whatever we can to (preserve) the area.”

City Councilman Donald Parthum Jr. agreed with Williams.

“I, too, will never vote for a multi-family dwelling on that lot,” Parthum said June 15.

Another of the reasons City leaders are exploring the creation of historic districts is because the Grosse Pointe Public School System Administrative Building at 389 St. Clair St. is slated for closure as part of district cost-cutting measures. According to the Grosse Pointe Historical Society and Higbie Maxon Agney Realtors, the building was designed by the acclaimed architectural firm of Stratton and Baldwin and built from 1905 to 1906. One of the oldest school buildings in the Pointes, the structure at 389 to 399 St. Clair was initially the home of the Cadieux School and started out as an eight-classroom, two-story structure at 389 St. Clair.

The moratorium approved by the council covers both total and partial demolition.

“We believe without a moratorium … irreparable harm to the historic value of the district may occur,” Connochie said.

Officials said the moratorium was needed immediately.

“There is no protection anywhere in the City of Grosse Pointe to protect historic homes from demolition,” Dame said.

In 2012, Dame said, the Grosse Pointe Historical Society did a study of the City. He said they concluded that the commercial district in the Village wouldn’t qualify as historical, but some residential districts had enough similarities and styles that they could qualify. However, Dame said the GPHS told them a “more detailed inventory (of the houses) would be needed” first. He recommended hiring the same firm that the GPHS used, because they’re historical preservation experts.

“Since the housing (market) crash in 2008, we’ve had a housing boom,” Dame said.

In just the last year, he said, about a dozen new homes were built.

“Not all of them are in keeping with the character we’d like to see in Grosse Pointe City,” Dame said of the newer structures.

Despite the presence of a number of unique historical buildings in the Pointes, only Grosse Pointe Farms has a historic housing district. Because the cost to rehabilitate these older homes is often very high, Dame said, some buyers opt to tear them down and construct a new dwelling instead. One of the benefits of having a historic district, he said, is that if renovations follow state and national preservation standards, the homeowner can qualify for a 20% tax credit. Dame said historic district guidelines usually only pertain to the portions of the home that are visible to the public, so interior remodeling or work on the back of the home wouldn’t likely have to adhere to those standards.

Dame said he previously worked in a community in Illinois that had three historic districts. While he acknowledged that homeowners don’t like being told what can and can’t be done with their property, “the vast majority” also realized that the value of these historical properties lay in preserving their historic character.

“My experience is that people wanted to be in the historic district because they knew being in the historic district added value to their homes,” Dame said. “But adding layers of review is more onerous.”

Former City mayor Dale Scrace was in office when the council created the E-R zoning districts 15 years ago.

“I’m fully in support of taking a moratorium to take the proper (time) to see what needs to be done,” Scrace said. “I think the survey is a wonderful place to start the process.”

Other residents, including Lincoln Road resident Robert Hindelang, also voiced their support. Hindelang, who is Juip’s father, has been a major proponent of preservation with regard to the Washington Road lot split; his home abuts that parcel.

“I believe that historic preservation is a public purpose,” Washington Road resident Laura Sullivan said. “I think it also will add value to our homes here.”

Fellow Washington Road resident John Doerer echoed that sentiment.

“I think the character of the homes in the E-R is what makes it unique … and adds character to the community as a whole,” Doerer said.

Not all residents were in favor of the moratorium. Matt Rogati, a Washington Road resident, said that he “was not thrilled” about the prospect of historic districts because they put a new burden on homeowners.

However, the majority of residents who addressed the council said they supported the moratorium, including Carol and Larry Marantette, who identified themselves as lifelong City residents.

“We strongly support the six-month moratorium to consider a historical district and … (look for ways to) protect historical character and architecture,” Larry Marantette said.

Because the moratorium is only on demolition and the construction of new homes, officials said it doesn’t prevent residents from doing renovations on their existing homes.

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