saginaw-rightsizing

Saginaw's Old West Side: The Nexus of Past, Present, and Future

Posted on: March 18th, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney 

Old Saginaw City, a bright spot for historic preservation on the west side of the Saginaw River.

I am currently working in Saginaw, Michigan to bring a historic preservation perspective to the work of right-sizing. As I’ve reported in previous posts, there are large areas of the city where the housing stock is so deteriorated that it has become ripe for demolition. As I do my work, it is important that I also keep in mind the bright spots in Saginaw’s preservation. 

One such bright spot is Old Saginaw City on the west side of the Saginaw River. This commercial historic district boasts a remarkable collection of late 19th-century Italianate warehouses and commercial buildings, and lies just a few blocks from one of Saginaw’s beautiful residential historic districts, Heritage Square. While it is true that many of the buildings in this area remain unused, a thriving number of businesses have found their home here, making a walk down Hamilton Street or Michigan Avenue a pleasant way to spend an afternoon or evening. 

While stopping in for coffee at the Red Eye, shopping for outdoor gear at the Stable Outdoor Outfitters, enjoying Pad Thai at Pasong’s, or meeting for beers at JB Meinburg’s (all businesses housed in historical buildings), there is a feeling of community here that is unique and special. This is no accident, nor is it something that grew spontaneously from nothing. Like a rare plant, a disinvested community’s sense of place must be nurtured and coaxed into existence. Behind each of the businesses and events found on the Old West Side is the West Saginaw Civic Association, a community group that works tirelessly to promote the area and to ensure its success. The people of the West Saginaw Civic Association consider themselves not only business people, but also the caretakers of their city, community crime watchers, and the shapers of Saginaw’s future. 

Older buildings are vital economic and cultural catalysts for cities. Because of low rents, older buildings allow a myriad of small business people and nonprofits to set up shop where they couldn’t otherwise. These small businesses not only add texture and character to a community, they provide vital services to the neighborhoods in which they exist, acting as the eyes and ears of every block. One of the tasks that I have undertaken in Saginaw is to convince both business people and community groups of the enormous power of historic buildings and districts. If the Old West Side can thrive, it will create a ripple effect in adjacent historic residential neighborhoods, ensuring their continued use and protection.

In an effort to assist the West Saginaw Civic Association and other groups like it in Saginaw, I try to attend as many community meetings as my schedule will allow. Further, I consider every encounter with anyone in Saginaw as a potential historic preservation networking opportunity. Most importantly, I frequent local businesses whenever I am in Saginaw, not just to spend my money, but to talk with owners and to get a sense of what they need and how I can connect them to preservation resources. My goal is for these efforts to not only help with the revitalization of the business district, but to jumpstart preservation efforts in general – and especially within the adjacent Heritage Square residential historic district where some of the right-sizing activity is taking place. 

In the beginning, this multifaceted and interpersonal approach to historic preservation in the face of right-sizing was often clumsy and difficult. However, in the end, I believe it will pay off. 

In October, Brenna Moloney was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network as a preservation specialist in the city of Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw. Read her earlier posts.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Mapping the Direction of Right-Sizing in Saginaw

Posted on: February 18th, 2011 by Guest Writer 6 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

Saginaw's old train depot.

Saginaw's old train depot.

There has been much hype in the media and buzz in urban planning circles about right-sizing but to see the term explicitly defined is a rarity. Popularly, the term is used to refer to the process of bringing a city’s infrastructure and housing stock in line with current needs and declining population trends. It is largely hailed, by the multitude of politicians, government officials and business owners who invoke its rhetorical power, as a rational response to the productive collapse of the Middle-American city. Right-sizing, we are told, represents an effort to impose order on what appears to be a largely chaotic process. Right-sizing also involves a determination of what’s valuable and what has the greatest potential to rise from the ashes, once economic conditions have stabilized. Preservation professionals may play an increasingly important role in this aspect of right-sizing and planning.

North of the 675 freeway in Saginaw, there are neighborhoods with virtually nothing remaining. The old train depot is in this area and across the street from it, there are rows of empty business buildings, some late 19th Century Italianates, others mid-20th Century modern, all in an advanced state of decay. Behind the business buildings lies block after nearly empty block, some with houses so huge and so grand, they take your breath away.

An abandoned car wash near the train station.

An abandoned car wash near the train station.

Part of the challenge to implementing government programs that address right-sizing, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program, involve evaluating the current conditions of the city. It is not enough to say that there are huge swaths of emptiness and blight and a few “big old houses.” The conditions of each area should be evaluated, lest important historic resources be overlooked. The question “what buildings define our city?” should be asked, among others.

In Saginaw, the challenge is compounded by the fact that many of the historic district maps are outdated or inaccurate. Part of my time in Saginaw has been spent rectifying this problem. I have been going through each of the National Register Files, taking notes and making copies of the maps. I then compare them to the GIS maps on file with the city of Saginaw and correct the inaccuracies in borders and names. This is done with the cooperation of the city’s planner and GIS staff.

Empty storefronts.

Empty storefronts.

The next step in determining conditions in Saginaw will be to conduct a resurvey of districts and potential districts. Since the National Register and local districts were established in the late 1970s, there has been a loss of integrity as the population declined and many buildings sat empty or were demolished. Though time will not allow an intensive level survey, I will be conducting a windshield survey with State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) historians over the next month. Our survey will include everything within the city limits and will take in to account eligible, non-eligible and potentially eligible districts. These survey results will be noted and recorded as an additional layer on the existing GIS and SHPO maps. They will be used to guide future decision making and determination as the city and state move forward with revitalization and right-sizing in Saginaw. They will used in conjunction with various neighborhood plans already in place and distributed to the Historic District Commission and other city commissions and departments. It is my hope that these maps will become dynamic, living parts of the right-sizing process.

In October, Brenna Moloney was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network as a preservation specialist in the city of Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw. Read her earlier posts here.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Saginaw: City of Contrasts

Posted on: January 20th, 2011 by Guest Writer 4 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

The late 19th century Caskey House.

The late 19th century Caskey House.

Saginaw is a city of contrasts. Like many Michigan communities, it experienced two boom periods. The first was the lumber era of the late 19th century and the second, the age of the automobile with its peak in the mid-twentieth century. These periods of prosperity are written on the landscape in the buildings that the people of Saginaw chose to build at the time. Often the stylistic disparity of each era pops up in the space of a single block. This gives Saginaw its rich and interesting character.

My favorite example of this contrast is on Jefferson Avenue in the Central City Expansion Historic District. This district is home to several large lumber baron mansions and smaller homes based on this style. One stunning example of this is the Caskey House on the corner of Millard and Jefferson, seen above.

With its rich woodwork, complex form, and detailing, this beautifully restored home exemplifies the type of home built by the wealthy elite at the height of Michigan’s lumber industry. Compare this with the Alden B. Dow home built one block north.

The mid-century Dow home.

The mid-century Dow home.

This home displays many of the earmarks of Dow’s work: concrete block construction, simple geometric windows and detailing, and copper decorative elements. The result is a building that reflects the aesthetics of its era: the mid-20th century and the height of the auto industry in Michigan. That these two buildings exist only a stone’s throw from one another gives the reader some idea of the texture of Saginaw’s built heritage.

The challenge of this contrast, especially as it exists in the historic districts, is to find a way to build new housing that is sensitive to and conversant with the old. Saginaw is a participant community in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), a HUD program that allots money to communities for demolition, construction and rehabilitation. Saginaw has received $17.5 million dollars through this program and has been able to demolish many dangerous and neglected buildings. There has been much criticism about which buildings have been demolished and this was part of the impetus for the creation of my position, as I mentioned in my previous post.

My job however, is to not to divide or to vilify, but to bring people together to do what is best for their community. To this end, helping city employees to design and write the specs for new in-fill housing in the historic districts has become part of my job. In the past, government funded housing projects have not always taken the design of surrounding houses in to account. A contrast has been created, as can been seen in the  photo below.

An example of infill construction in Saginaw.

An example of infill construction in Saginaw.

The building at center reflects the history and economic trajectory of Saginaw just as vividly as the Caskey mansion and the Dow house. Instead of enriching the landscape, however, the contrast it creates in the historic district is unappealing and indifferent to its surroundings or the social needs of its inhabitants. The Caskey mansion and Dow house are triumphs of design and quality. The above pictured in-fill home is not. So how can we avoid a jarring sort of contrast and encourage new in-fill that is interesting, beautiful and humane? Additionally, how can this be done within the time constraints of the NSP program and with a staff that is already stretched thin?

I have tried to approach the answers to these questions in several ways. Most importantly, I’ve done this by identifying historic preservation resources and making them available to the NSP planning board. This involves getting a State Historic Preservation Office architect to help write rehabilitation specifications. It involves creating an in-fill design guide that the city inspectors can reference while they do their work. It means identifying contractors that are familiar with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and know how to repair windows. It involves creating a crash course in historic district legislation and architecture for the NSP board. Knowing what’s out there and how to connect people to it is half the battle. My dearest hope is that these efforts will contribute positively to the built environment, adding another rich layer to Saginaw’s history, with buildings that add interest and value to the neighborhoods.

In October, Brenna Moloney was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network as a preservation specialist in the city of Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw. Read her first post here.

Update, 1/21/11: When initially published, the third and fourth paragraphs above were mistakenly omitted. Apologies for any confusion this may have caused.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

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A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: Rightsizing in Saginaw

Posted on: December 16th, 2010 by Guest Writer 12 Comments

 

Written by Brenna Moloney

The streets of West Saginaw are bleak this time of year. This is partially the effect of the season: indifferent gray skies, cutting Michigan winds, trees still and bare.

However, the austerity of Saginaw is not just a trick of the climate. It also arises from the built landscape. The streets are lined with monumental buildings, both residential and commercial. A few of these buildings--lovely Queen Annes, big-shouldered Prairie Four-Squares, Italian villas, Kahn steel-framed office blocks--are well-kept.

Many, however, are not. They linger sadly, everywhere, in various stages of decay. Ostensibly, this is a human environment and yet, one sees so few people as one explores the neighborhoods. This is what disinvestment and economic collapse look like.

Neighbors in the Saginaw City Center National Register Historic District have seen one house after another come down. But what are city leaders supposed to do? There is no one to live in these houses and many of the buildings have been abandoned for years. They have been stripped of their valuables and some stand open to weather. Others have even been gutted by fire. Faced with a crumbling housing stock, a diminished population, and high foreclosure rates, demolition seems all but inevitable.

Despite this, neighbors always gather to watch as a house is pulled down. No one speaks because they’ve seen this before and feel powerless to stop it. The crunch of hundred-year-old woodwork as it’s crushed by a bulldozer is a heart-rending sound. This is what a shrinking city feels like.

All of this is not to say that one should abandon hope. On the contrary, the people of Saginaw, who are filled with love and pride for their city and its important history, have drawn on vast stores of tenacious optimism to keep what is here intact and to create community in unthinkable conditions.

Community gardens, neighborhood meetings, and people who get up day after day to clean up and carry on despite the harrowing economic conditions are the reason the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network brought me here. They are the ones who will find a way to protect our shared built heritage. I will be here to help connect Saginaw residents to resources and provide education.

Make no mistake: What has happened to Saginaw is a tremendous tragedy, and it is a tragedy that is being duplicated in city after city across Middle America. The challenges are daunting, but now is not the time for preservationists to remain silent. Now, more than ever, we should fight for the places that matter because Saginaw is what the future of historic preservation looks like.

In October, Brenna Moloney was hired by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network as a preservation specialist in the city of Saginaw, Michigan. She advises city and county employees on historic preservation, and works to educate the community on the importance and benefits of historic preservation by strengthening their Historic District Commission, offering workshops, and by starting a community advocacy group. Her employment was made possible through a grant from the Americana Foundation. Brenna will be blogging here about her experiences in Saginaw.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.