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Ask a Detroit Preservationist Anything: Answers Revealed

Last Friday, we invited commenters to post any and all questions they might have for a preservationist in Detroit. Answering those questions now is preservationist, architect and Building Hugger founder Amy Swift.

Thanks to all that posted comments for this week's installment of Curbed University dealing with preservation in Detroit. If I didn't get to your specific question feel free to contact me directly.
Before I get into the nitty gritty, there were a number of you asking how you can become a preservationist in Detroit. To answer this generically, I believe that preservation is a frame of mind. You don't need a costly degree or a historic home renovation under your belt to be one. If you're committed to the protection of place and believe that architecture is a key component in the maintenance of cultural memory, then you're already a preservationist in my book.
Need more advice? Live here. Take pride in your community. Talk to your neighbors. Build stronger communities. Reach out to like minds. Cultivate networks. Learn the set up of your local Historic Districts Council and Planning & Development Department. Hold them accountable as your public representatives. Speak out.
There's no set path and the journey, as in life, is often a crooked one, but if you love Detroit's architectural heritage and want to devote even a small piece of your life to preserving it you'll find your way.

Q: Any advice on finding funding to fix up an old house and open a B&B. It has good bones but most of the architectural details have been removed, any advice on where to find replacements and how to properly restore it?

A: First, make sure this is an acceptable use under the zoning. If you need a variance, that's a somewhat lengthy process that would be best to start sooner rather than later as there's no guarantee on variances. Converting a home to a B&B should be fine under most residential zoning though.

For the renovation, since it's a change in use you'll need a licensed architect to prepare the permit drawings to submit to the city. Good bones are good, but I can't comment much more without knowing more about the project. For sources see the following question.

As for funding, much of what was once available at the state and federal level has dried up with the economy, but that doesn't mean there's nothing out there. Historic tax credits are an option, but those are a delayed benefit to your taxes and not a way to gather funds up front. Since this renovation is part of a business start-up, you could pursue funding available for small businesses. There are various organizations around town that can help with that. You can also finance (with the caveat that it is incredibly difficult to finance anything in Detroit).

Regardless of what path you take for funding you'll need a pretty solid business plan, including a construction budget showing multiple bids from contractors. In order to get accurate bids you'll need a full set of permit plans from your architect. That may feel like putting the cart before the horse but if you're committed to the project, spending the requisite cash for the drawings will be a non-issue.

Q: Is their a salvage place to find missing pieces? When these items get stolen they end up somewhere, any ideas where?

A: There's of course no way to track where scrapped (aka stolen) pieces end up. Unfortunately, many of the best quality pieces are taken to out-of-state markets where the seller can get a better price, or to private buyers looking for something specific. You all remember the W.M. Finck Mansion and the out-of-state scrapper owner that hauled most of the unique architectural features to Ohio for his lake house in Port Clinton, right? Well, don't think that was an isolated incident just because it was the only house you heard about. On the contrary. It's a pandemic.

Not all scrapping operations result in items being smuggled across state lines. Many do end up here, though there's no way to tell a stolen product from one legitimately harvested through contracted deconstruction efforts. It's the nature of the beast.

I seem to have the best luck with the Detroit Antiques Mall at 3rd St and Fisher Fwy when it comes to niche architectural products like lighting, hardware, and novelty fixtures. The prices are a bit inflated because they get their fair share of set designers with big budgets that come in, but they seem to be the most consistent with what I'm usually looking for. I've seen enough surly characters attempt to hock their questionably-sourced wares there to feel comfortable with their sourcing, so buyer be aware.

Habitat for Humanity's ReStore outlets have some deconstructed product via donations, so you can be sure it is not stolen, but you won't often find a lot of character-rich materials. Good for economically-priced flooring, appliances, and doors.

The stock at Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit is sourced via in-house deconstruction contracts and donations, and is a good place to source moldings, flooring, doors, radiators, and the like.

I have more secrets, but if I gave them all away I'd be out of business.

Q: When will the city release much of its land hoard in Brush Park? I only see infill housing as a way to preserve the few historic structures and make the neighborhood viable. Does the city have any plans for this land?

A: The Brush Park CDC and Detroit PDD have been working on a new mixed-use zoning overlay for Brush Park, which of course is both a national and local historic district. There was a community meeting February 12 where the concern over proper guidance for new infill development was brought up (because let's face it, infill is going to largely determine the character of that neighborhood). In response, Hamilton Anderson and Midtown Detroit Inc. are currently working on a set of design guidelines for development work under the proposed zoning.

When they are done with that and the CDC approves (public comment encouraged, contact me for details as they develop), it will be PDD's task to fold the guidelines into the zoning outlines and get the measure passed by city council. With the impending EFM, who knows how long it will take before everything shakes loose, but rest assured good things are in the works.

Q: Do you know if there are any plans to restore the Book Building? When they erected scaffolding on the sidewalk surrounding the building last year, I hoped it was to begin work on it, but I haven't seen any evidence of that yet.

A: My understanding is that the scaffolding was erected by the city to protect the sidewalk from any falling debris coming from the upper stories, same as the Sachs-owned Hotel Charlevoix. Crossing fingers and toes that there are redevelopment plans in the mix because truth be told that's one of my favorites. If I hear anything, I'll be sure to fill you all in!

Q: Do you find you have to compromise or 'loosely interpret' Federal Preservation Standards in Detroit where so many buildings are lucky to get any improvements at all and budgets are so very tight. E.g Vinyl windows are better than no windows?!? How do you handle cases where incompatible improvements are made, but there is no money left to correct the issues?

A: Let me be clear: there is no instance where vinyl windows, or vinyl anything for that matter, are acceptable under any circumstance, historic or otherwise. Besides vinyl being disgustingly anti-environment and a human health hazard of cancerous proportions, it is unforgivably hideous and downright tacky. NO VINYL! There are always creative ways to deal with the rest of the budget to make it work. I promise. Your unborn grandchildren will thank you for not further polluting their earthly inheritance.

Vinyl aside, preservation guidelines are generally vague and subject to loose interpretation, regardless of what market. What's key is knowing the local, state, and federal regulating bodies that will be approving the appropriateness of your work, especially when funding is involved. Working directly with these bodies throughout the design and renovation process is key to ensuring your interpretation of the various standards is acceptable. It's a subjective science and rationale varies from project to project, so working closely with the HDC or SHPO is the best way to ensure you will get the approval you need/seek/desire. Our local HDC is staffed with incredibly helpful and capable people... and none of them bite so reach out!

Undeniably, yes, Detroit offers a whole host of extra challenges when it comes to preservation jobs as compared to most similarly-sized US cities. The difference, however, is not that the budgets are tighter or the advocates meeker. Detroit's challenges lie in assessment valuation, scrappers, incapable or absentee property owners, speculation, foreclosure, neighborhood destabilization, and anything else that plagues the real estate markets here at large. Whether historically significant or not, we're losing our architectural fabric at a frightening rate so every last bungalow or ho-hum warehouse saved, even through meager means, is a small victory here. Hell, even demolition is sometimes a legitimate path towards preservation in instances where you need to cut a dying limb in order to save the life of the community.

Preservation is different in Detroit, but not because of how we interpret standards. Preservation is different here because, given the number of challenges each project faces, even the smallest, unconventional efforts make a huge impact.