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Posted on Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 6 a.m.

New committee will determine historic worth of Ann Arbor's Germantown neighborhood

By Ryan J. Stanton


The Bethlehem Church on South Fourth Avenue was registered as a historic place by the state in 1982. According to state records, it is significant as the home of Michigan's first German congregation. Ryan J. Stanton |

The stone walls and bell tower of the castle-like Bethlehem United Church of Christ rise high into the sky, casting shadows over adjacent properties along Fourth Avenue south of downtown Ann Arbor.

A historic marker out front says the Gothic-style church was dedicated in 1896 by German congregants whose ancestors first settled in the area in the 1820s and 1830s. They built two other churches, along with some of the earliest houses in the neighborhood.

Two doors down from the church, a sign in front of the Muehlig Funeral Chapel gives a nod to the chapel's own historic roots: "Established in 1852."

There's a nostalgic charm to Ann Arbor's Germantown neighborhood, where colorful turn-of-the-century homes and towering trees line the streets. If you ask Tom Whitaker, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, there's a case to be made for designating the area an official historic district.

"Even in some of Ann Arbor's best historic districts, you don't have this much continuous, in-place, original architecture," Whitaker said. "You go down the streets on the Old West Side, and there are very few blocks where you have continuous uninterrupted houses. A lot of them have been broken up by boxy, brick apartment buildings from the 1960s that were put up quickly to cash in on student housing. This neighborhood, for some reason, remained intact through all of that."

A new historic district study committee, on which Whitaker serves, has been formed to determine the historic significance of a two-block portion of Germantown. The portion includes the area along South Fifth Avenue where a developer wants to demolish seven turn-of-the-century homes to make way for an apartment complex called City Place.

The new committee - its seven members were hand-picked by city officials - will spend the next six to 12 months studying whether it makes sense to establish a historic district to preserve the neighborhood.

"There's a lot of work to be done," Whitaker said. "I'm generally pleased with the makeup of the group. There's a lot of good professional preservationists that have experience, and I think they will get right down to business."

Their duties will include a significant amount of field work, research and documentation. In addition to Whitaker, the committee members are Ina Hanel-Gerdenich, a local historic preservation consultant; Susan Wineberg, a past Ann Arbor Historic District Commission member; Sarah Wallace and Patrick McCauley, current Historic District Commission members; Rebecca Lopez Kriss, a graduate student at the University of Michigan; and Kristi Gilbert, who has served on past historic district study committees.

The City Council recently approved a six-month moratorium on construction and demolition in the proposed district while the committee, which has yet to hold its first meeting, completes its work. That, for now, holds up the development of City Place. And after six months, there's a chance the moratorium could be extended another six months while the committee continues to meet.

"Their task is going to be to examine the properties in the district to get some kind of inventory and understand the historic contribution they make to the community," said City Councilman Carsten Hohnke, D-5th Ward, who pushed for the formation of the committee and a moratorium.


These seven houses along South Fifth Avenue, just south of William, could be demolished if the City Place project is approved. Ryan J. Stanton |

At the developer's request, the City Council agreed in July to postpone consideration of the City Place site plan until the developer can come back in January with revised plans. Developer Alex de Parry has now decided to come back before the City Council Monday to ask for approval of a site plan that includes two, three-story apartment buildings with a total of 24 units and 144 bedrooms.

Jill Thacher, the city's historic preservation coordinator, said the study committee will assess the historic value and condition of buildings in the proposed district. It will take into consideration any modifications that have been done and will look at just how much historic material is left, she said.

Thacher said if the area becomes a historic district, all future building work beyond basic repairs would need to be reviewed by the city's Historic District Commission. If the work proposed is not appropriate or doesn't meet certain standards, the commission can reject it based on historic grounds alone.

Hohnke said there's no doubt Germantown has been a longstanding residential community in Ann Arbor. As one example, he points to the Beakes house at 415 S. Fifth Ave., believed to be one of the oldest surviving houses in the city. The house, which dates back to the 1830s or 1840s, has served at different times as home for two of Ann Arbor's mayors - Hiram Beakes, who was mayor from 1873 to 1875, and Samuel Beakes, who was mayor from 1888 to 1890, as well as the editor of the Ann Arbor Argus.

A number of properties in the neighborhood - including the Beakes house, which is slated for demolition under the City Place plan - were once recognized as individual historic properties. But the historic district they were part of was absolved of its status in 2001. Changes in state law determined historic districts must be made up of contiguous properties, not scattered parcels.

The new area being evaluated for its historic net worth includes a two-block stretch from William to Packard between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The actual Germantown neighborhood covers a larger area from Fourth to Division and William to Madison. Whitaker hopes the committee will look at expanding the study area to include a greater portion of Germantown.


Tom Whitaker, president of the Germantown Neighborhood Association, stands in front of his house at 444 S. Fifth Ave., across the street from the proposed City Place development. Whitaker is working to designate the area a historic district to save seven homes from demolition. Ryan J. Stanton |

Whitaker, a construction manager and real estate investor, lives at 444 S. Fifth Ave., directly across from the proposed City Place site. From the porch of his eclectic-style home built in 1905, he can see the row of seven houses that potentially face the wrecking ball. He also owns the home next door at 450 S. Fifth Ave., which he leases to a family.

Whitaker has a personal stake in whether the neighborhood receives a historic designation: It would help him pay for exterior renovations on both houses.

"The historic district would make that more possible because there'll be a 25 percent state tax credit for properties in the historic district for renovation costs," he said. "And for income properties like the house next door, you can combine the 25 percent state tax credit with a 20 percent federal credit, so theoretically up to 45 percent of qualified renovation costs for historic renovations can be tax-deductible. It's a tremendous incentive."

Martha Luczak, who lives with her family at 438 S. Fifth Ave., said she's anxious for the study committee to get to work. She, too, looks across the street at the seven homes that could come down if City Place moves forward.

"My dream would be that the homes would remain intact and that other families would pursue living down here," said Luczak, who lives in a home built in 1925 and originally occupied by the Schmid family, early leaders of the Bethlehem Church next door. "We feel very honored to be in these homes and to be stewards to these homes. Every house has its own file of history."

Tom Ziesemer, who has been going to Bethlehem Church for nearly 30 years, peered out the back window of the church on a recent afternoon, admiring the historic charm of the seven houses across the street.

"Those homes are beautiful over there," Ziesemer said. "You'd hate to see those houses come down and see that area modernized now."

Ryan Stanton covers government for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.



Fri, Sep 25, 2009 : 11:26 a.m.

I want to make it very clear that the state does not force the city to do anything. I know this because I have spoken directly to Brian Conway the State Historic Commissioner. He made it perfectly clear that the state provides the framework to local governments for historic preservation however it is the local ordinance that is the law. You can appeal a decision made by the A2HDC to SHPO (state historic preservation office) and if they rule in your favor the A2HDC still can deny your application forcing you to file suit in the 5th district court. The historic districts were all streamlined, Clarify is the A2d2 steering committees term, made generic - is the term I prefer, under the guise of PA 169. This solved the problem of several small historic districts and part of the old west side, that were not conducive to the A2D2 vision. Furthermore the small and very vocal Ann Arbor preservationistas saw their chance to grab absolute control. There is an incentive from the state to comply with PA 169 in order to receive tax breaks but more importantly it was going to allow the preservationist to access a greater percentage of potential grant money by conforming to the requirements of becoming a CLG (Certified Local Government). The tax breaks rarely benefit homeowners unless they have an architecturally significant home otherwise you dont qualify and after you see the guidelines its not worth the hassle. However the benefit of the tax breaks for landlords and developers for A2D2 historic properties can make or break the projects financing. I am pro preservation I believe in our past and what we can learn from it. Without detailed knowledge, but just from the Beakes house alone that there is some merit in the moratorium, however it is not clear that any of the other homes are really historical other than being old. I would move the Beakes house if possible and let the developer proceed. We need a better vehicle for controlling development than manipulating the HDC policies at the expense of true preservation work and personal property rights. We are living under the most stringent Historic Preservation Guidelines in the country and 90% of all contributing historic properties in A2 are Streetscape Contributors meaning their historical contribution is the pre depression era housing developments or some of the nations first Sub divisions. This is why the Old West Side was listed in the national register of historic places; it was the nations first streetscape neighborhood. A streetscape is the front of the houses the lawn the trees, the sidewalks and the sky above. In Ann Arbor you know the look when you go down the streets. So unless something famous happened, or someone famous lived there (mayors are the bottom rung for qualifying) or the house is architecturally significant the HDC should not have say on what happens to a streetscape contributor except for the front of the structure and property. It is time for HDC reform. PA 169 is lacking in nuance and the Ann Arbor Historic Districts in their current configuration do not merit the stringent historical application of PA 169 without defining a streetscape clause. As for the HDC and Staff, they are out of control, at the last HDC meeting the staff, without warning requested the police to have me removed from the meeting after I had given public commentary on the first and second applicant. It was a gross violation of my civil rights and no one in the HDC, Mayors office, police or city council have offered an apology. We are taking legal action; deemed it unworthy of the news Finally needs to do a much better job on detailing some of the actual laws and ordinances and maybe even take some time to investigate the HDC document archives and maybe ask some critical questions about the rights of property owners in Ann Arbor Historic Districts and the role of the HDC in manipulating affordable housing, hdc influencing lifestyle by design control home size, discrimination and bias, not to mention fostering a clearly arbitrary and capricious environment. If 99% of all of the Historic District coordinators recommendations are approved by the HDC then why bother having a commission at all. Lets make Jill Thacher the historical preservation Czar and all go amish. Not to mention the commission has a failure of attendance at least 50% of the time for the last 2 years this forces a 2/3 majority vote to win approval and why are there no minutes for any of the HDC meeting since January 09 posted. If you think this is unreasonable at all stop go to the HDC website and download the new fee schedule for filing an application.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 10:24 a.m.

Nothing was snuck in under the radar. Several years ago, the State of MI required all municipalities to align with the State requirements for historic districts, building codes and other statutes. Municipalities are not allowed to opt out or alter state law.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 9:24 a.m.

It would be nice if posters actually knew something about historic districts and how they work. repeating rumor and myth only continues to reinforce falsehoods as fact. If you want the facts, please go here First off, when someone calls the HDC the "Historical Society" their competence to comment can be called into question for not knowing the difference. The HDC has no authority to fine anyone. Fines can only be assessed by governmental authorities who can legally issue a citation. Please read the sections on this page if you wish to have a better understanding of what can and what cannot be done to a home located in a historic district.


Wed, Sep 23, 2009 : 7:47 a.m.

My comments were not hearsay. The 2 stories I mentioned were from the homeowners themselves and true. The woman who had to replace the tree ignored the H.D.C.'s request and planted something more in line with what she could afford as well as what would look nice, risking a fine from H.D.C. The other homeowner said that 2 ladies from the commission stood in their front yard and made an arbitrary decision that they could still fix the old, dilapidated, single pane windows yet again even though they were not original. They DID go to court in Detroit to get the decision overturned.


Tue, Sep 22, 2009 : 7:49 p.m.

The HDC nor any neighborhood group has any control whatsoever over replacing a tree that falls in anyone's neighborhood has to be replaced. If the tree is on private property it is the responsibility of the property owner. If it is on public property it is the responsibility of the municipality to replace it, but they are not required by law to do so. There is no city regulation, ordinance, law or guideline, written or unwritten that requires anyone to replace a fallen tree on private or public property historic district or not. Even armed wit the facts, some people will continue report hearsay as fact to suit their own narrow perspective.


Tue, Sep 22, 2009 : 5:23 p.m.

Regardless of the myths that some posters continue to report like the replacement windows story that susan refers to. There is no such entity as the "Historical Society". There is a committee made up of political appointees (mostly by the mayor) titled the HIstoric District Commission. They are not self appointed. Neighborhood associations like the Old Fourth Ward and the Old Westside Association have no legal say whatsoever in the decisions of the HDC. Anyone can speak at the HDC meetings at city hall. No one group holds sway over any decisions. The Germantown committee is not the HDC. All laws regarding historic districts are governed by State of MI law. No municipality may have laws or guidelines that are less or more strict that the State of MI laws. Ann Arbor is no different. Ann Arbor complies with the State law and procedures governing Historic Districts.


Mon, Sep 21, 2009 : 8:10 a.m.

I'm all for preserving this neighborhood. With that said, however I would warn Tom Whitaker and the others in Germantown that any historical designation will bring all kinds of unwanted regulations. The "Hysterical Society", as I like to refer to them, is made up of a number of folks who have nothing better to do than arbitrarily make judgements about what you can and can't do to the outside of your home. Example: One family had to go to court in Detroit last year to get a judge to overturn a ruling by the H.S. in the old west side over replacement of windows. The windows to be replaced were NOT original and had been repaired over and over and were perpetually attracting ants and termites. The H.S. decided they could be repaired yet again instead of approving new (energy efficient) windows. Apparently, the rules state that if the windows are original, you must do everything possible to preserve them before they can eventually be replaced. Again, these were not original windows. Another account from an old west sider had to do with a 100 year old tree that fell on her house. The H.S. said she had to replace it with something comparable. I'm told that originally the H.S. only controlled what you could do to the front of your home, but now they control the whole footprint. These rules were changed under the public radar a couple of years ago. So if this is what you want, go for it but if there is another way, I would suggest looking into it.

Marvin Face

Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 9:30 p.m.

Thank you Andrew W.. I am fully aware of the arduous process for the designation of a historic district. I also personally know several members of this committee and have little doubt about what the outcome will be in the end.. I think loading the committee with preservationists has but one likely outcome.

Raggety Andy

Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 9:06 p.m.

Sometimes it takes a threat of demolition to energize the advocates of preservation... To respond to Marvin, the creation of an Historic District is a meticulous and professional process that includes research and input from individuals of a highly qualified and diverse academic background. It is not simply something that is railroaded through a sympathetic city council. I suggest that you, too, take the time to research and understand the process before making such gross generalizations.

Marvin Face

Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 8:02 p.m.

I agree with MB111. I have lived near here for over 20 years and have never once heard it referred to as "Germantown". I have to say that Tom is a genius for inventing a catchy name for his neighborhood so quickly.. I absolutely disagree that this area should be designated a historic district but my guess is that with so many "preservationists" on the committee, it is a self-realizing prophecy. After all, when you are expert in preservation, what are you there to do? Preserve. Mr. Whitaker will steamroll these poor folks on the committee.. The fix is in.


Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 6:49 p.m.

The interest in this "historic district" is a result of the City Place project. Its funny how there was no historical significance in this area for over 100 years but as soon as a project might get approved the NIMBYs are out in force. What a joke.


Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 5:48 p.m.

Like this city council will vote contrary to the committee recommendations?

Matt Van Auker

Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 4:18 p.m.

OK, if you get rid of the Ann Arbor historic district, you are going to run into a real loser. Some of the most awesome homes, and places in Ann Arbor, are in the various historic districts. I've had some of my best meals and smokes at Bethlehem (not to mention, done some of my best drinking. Of what, I will simply not say, nor under what conditions. lol). I think historic districts, should be increased, not decreased, in Ann Arbor!

Matt Van Auker

Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 4:17 p.m.

Ok, if you get rid of the Ann Arbor historic district, you are going to run into a real loser. Some of the most awesome homes, and places in Ann Arbor, are in the various historic districts. I've had some of my best meals and smokes at Bethehem (not to mention, done some of my best drinking. Of what, I will simply not say, nor under what conditions. lol). I think historic districts, should be increased, not decreased, in Ann Arbor!

Ryan J. Stanton

Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 3:59 p.m.

Keep in mind this is only an ad-hoc committee that will report back to City Council. City officials tried to include a mix of people on this committee and Tom Whitaker was included to provide a voice of the residents in the proposed district. No matter which resident you picked, each one would stand to gain in the same fashion. So, the question is: Do you not include a voice for the residents on the committee then?


Sun, Sep 20, 2009 : 1:52 p.m.

Mr Whittaker appears to have a conflict of interest and should be removed from the committee!