By Emilie Evans
Two weeks, 50 volunteer surveyors, and nearly 18,000 historic properties. Not exactly your typical historic resource survey. With $52 million in demolition funding earmarked for Detroit, however, swift action was necessary. In January, faced with the very real possibility that National Register–eligible properties could fall to bulldozers, preservationists quickly took action. The Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN), in conjunction with Preservation Detroit, coordinated a massive survey across six neighborhoods that set precedents with the partnerships it forged and the speed of data collection. The survey results will be used to inform the demolition decision-making process.
This whirlwind survey was born out of the circumstances surrounding funds that were initially intended for foreclosure prevention assistance which were later re-allocated to fund the demolition of blighted properties. This $52 million from the federal Hardest Hit Fund (HHF) that came to Detroit—out of a total $100 million to Michigan—were determined by the US Treasury to “be an investment, not typical government spending,” thereby not triggering Section 106 review and skirting any preservation input. This unfortunate precedent set by Michigan is now being followed by Ohio and others, much to the distress of preservation advocates on the ground.
In Detroit, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority decided to exclude National Register-listed historic districts from HHF-funded demolition. Areas determined to be eligible National Register historic districts, however, were left on the chopping block. The Detroit Land Bank Authority (DLBA)—the entity responsible for implementing the use of Detroit’s HHF dollars—chose to focus this funding on six target neighborhoods based on the idea that strategic demolition can help raise property values and stabilize neighborhoods.
Surveying by Smartphone
MHPN asked surveyors—primarily professionals with experience in historic preservation, architecture or architectural history—to evaluate every building in eligible National Register historic districts within the six HHF target neighborhoods. Using smartphone technology, surveyors were asked to assess each building’s architectural integrity, determine whether it was in keeping with neighborhood character, evaluate the intactness of the block, and note whether the building warranted further research.
The data were weighted to create a composite “HP Score.” Completed survey data was analyzed, and HP Scores of Very Important, Important, or Less Important were assigned to all 18,000 parcels. This system was designed to distill these preservation concepts of integrity and character into a clear rating that could be used as shorthand for each structure’s historic value.
To execute the survey, MHPN teamed up with LocalData, a tech startup, which provided a web-based platform to conduct the parcel-level assessment using smartphones. The platform overlays parcel boundaries with satellite imagery to clearly identify every plot to be surveyed. Surveyors can then tap on each parcel appearing on their screen, answer four questions, and hit submit.
A Partnership Approach
MHPN envisioned the Detroit historic resource survey as a means for identifying existing assets and as a way for preservationists to be proactive participants in the decisions around demolition. For the historic resource survey to be relevant and tenable, MHPN knew that any effort had to have the support of local partners. The DLBA, building upon an already established relationship with MHPN, invited MHPN staff members to the table and welcomed the survey as a valuable tool to help inform its demolition decisions.
MHPN also coordinated its survey with the Motor City Mapping project, an assessment that was happening concurrently and which, among other factors, evaluated the building conditions of every structure in Detroit. Loveland Technologies and Data Driven Detroit executed this project under the direction of the Detroit Blight Task Force, a three-person panel convened at the direction of the emergency manager to address blight issues. The mapping project has recently been highlighted in the New York Times and Crain’s Detroit.
The results from the Motor City Mapping project will help guide demolition decisions by DLBA and other city agencies. MHPN designed and executed its historic resource survey to be complementary and compatible with the mapping project to allow for easy overlay and analysis of the data.
Taking a Proactive Role
In many legacy cities, the term blight is tossed around a lot. Here in Detroit, there are a reported 80,000 vacant, blighted structures, and the suggested solution to this problem is to knock them down. While preservationists on the ground in Detroit and other legacy cities acknowledge that not every historic building can or should be saved, it is equally important to convey that not everything that is vacant is blighted. A counter-message of vacant ≠ blighted needs to be heard over the cacophony of messaging around blight elimination. In the face of this, MHPN hopes that this quick, low-budget, and tech-savvy survey offers a model that other preservation organizations can use in their communities as a collaborative instrument in the continuing effort to address blight while preserving historic assets.
The Detroit historic resource survey demonstrated that historic preservation has the ability to make meaningful, timely contributions to demolition decisions which have the potential to redefine a city’s built environment. While the field is often stereotyped as being reactive and oppositional, this survey provided an opportunity for MHPN and Preservation Detroit to play proactive and positive roles going forward in helping to guide implementation of demolition money in Detroit and to sit at the table with decision-makers to offer collaborative and constructive input.
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Emilie Evans is a preservation specialist with the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and the National Trust for Historic Preservation based in Detroit.