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Posted on Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 9:24 a.m.

Historic District standards help make Ann Arbor a 'cool city'

By Letters to the Editor

The recent multiple articles concerning Louis Breskman’s violation of the Old West Side’s Historic Preservation Ordinance appear to perpetuate a long-standing misconception about property owner’s rights.

Mr. Breskman’s decision to move to Ann Arbor “because of its liberal reputation” was fallacious. Ann Arbor has standards, and Ann Arbor is a special, even “cool” city, because of those standards.

The city’s historic district ordinance first became law in 1971, thanks to a group of concerned citizens led by attorney John Hathaway. It provides for a group of mayor-appointed commissioners whose job is ENFORCEMENT of the preservation ordinances.


The fence erected outside Louis Breskman's Old West Side home.

Ryan J. Stanton |

The 14 historic districts and their ordinances are all products of the property owners in those districts, so the neighbor who complained to the city was, in fact, performing a civic duty -- one shared by all property owners in the Old West Side Historic District.

They wrote the ordinance, and all of them comply with it! Mr. Breskman violated it by failing to obtain Historic District Commission (HDC) review and approval before putting up the fence. Bottom line? He broke the law.

HDC, its coordinator, and Ann Arbor city attorneys have no choice other than to demand its removal. Breskman’s threat to move away is not germane to the issue, and if it were up to this octogenarian townie, I’d call his bluff in a heartbeat.

Mary M. Culver
Ann Arbor

Editor’s note: Mary Culver is a retired Ann Arbor preservation coordinator and former long-time member and past chair of Ann Arbor’s Historic District Commission.


Richard Wickboldt

Wed, Feb 15, 2012 : 1:38 a.m.

Just watch a couple of the HDC broadcast and realize it has outlived its purpose and usefulness. They are keeping a dossier on each house and ready to pounce on a home owner's basic constitutional rights. If this commission isn't disbanded. Soon people will be required to wear historic era clothing and use historic era transportation. May even require the use of out houses. Beware one day your house and neighborhood will be old enough to be declared a historic district and a dossier will be made on you. The only way to stop this madness is to vote in different city council members. Get out and VOTE.


Tue, Feb 14, 2012 : 12:27 a.m.

The Historic District regulations on A2 don't make it a cool city...they make it Ypsilanti a cool city because all the young hip and original people moved there long ago because of A2's sky-high property prices.


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 11:40 p.m.

Historic districts are a worthwhile idea, but there are problems when you have ideologues serving on the commission. There needs to be a parcel of common sense used when decisions are used. Sometimes the commission has had requirements that cause the house to be less energy efficient or to not be properly protected from inclement weather. Again, the idea is good, the problem is with the rigid implimentation.


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 2:23 p.m.

I live on the OWS and am so thankful it's NOT in the regulated Historic district. I live in Ann Arbor and appreciate A2 bc of the liberal atmosphere. The historic district is the opposite of that and in such is antiquated. There are cool cities everywhere, they aren't cool because they are old, they are cool because they are unique, I'm sure the guy moving out of his house bc he put up an attractive fence that didn't meet guidelines who was tattled on by his neighbor can provide us a list of the cool cities, since no doubt he will be moving to one. I would give it the boot if treated that way and I've been here my entire life. I appreciate regulations to keep all of our property values up, but the historic district is a bit much. There is a reason they come up w new building codes and materials people!


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 1:50 p.m.

I guess that's why we keep losing out to Greenfield Village in the "coolest city in MI" contest. And sure there is a lot of Ann Arbor tourism from people wanting to come here and see the old houses with appropriate fencing. Just keep telling yourself that.


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 12:20 p.m.

The historic disrtict commision are a bunch of amateur know it alls that play the same power game and pat each other on the back bologna that city council has honed to a fine any of their meetings and the inqusition looks like a sunday picnic..more over none of these amateurs are from here in the first place and I doubt that any of them have a clue as to history of the OZ they presume to protect ( if you don't think thats true just drive by the ghetto ruins of the old 1950's greek church on main st. ) ...anyone who would buy property in any of the " districts " in the first place is just plain stupid, led down the yellow brick road only to find the pit from hell if you so much as want to drive a nail ...


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 2:32 p.m.

Yeah! Next stop - ANARCHY!!!


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 2:16 a.m.

Dear Ms. Culver, Thank you for your service to our community. Even though I disagree with your position on this issue, I apreciate your public service. Zoning regulations are a necessary part of urban planning. There does need to be a balance between private property rights and neighborhood preservation. I think the HDC has gone to far in regulating the actions of homeowners. How do you define "historic"? Outside electric lights were not part of the exterior of homes in the 1860's. If you can prevent a homeowner from installing a wood (a historic building material) fence what prevents the HDC from banning outside electric lights except common sense, which seems to be in short supply on the HDC. Can the HDC prevent a homeowner from installing energy saving modern windows, again something not available in the distant past? City Council clearly needs to moderize (pun intended) the HDC and establish a balance between the rights of property owners and the desire to maintain the unique character of some of our oldest neighborhoods.

hut hut

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 12:50 p.m.

What word is "moderize" a pun of? Moderize isn't a pun. You and many others are giving far too much authority to the HDC. The ENFORCEMENT of this and other laws pertaining to zoning, building, and even fences is NOT within the authority of the HDC. Their authority is in the oversight and adherence to the existing Federal standards governing historic districts. They have no right to prosecute or enforce the law or determining any penalties for violations of the law. All enforcement, prosecution and possible penalty is all under and within the City bureaucracy (Attorney, Building and Zoning and law enforcement) and NOT the HDC.

John Q

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 4:47 a.m.

"what prevents the HDC from banning outside electric lights except common sense, which seems to be in short supply on the HDC. " If this were the case, why haven't they done it? You've managed to undercut your own argument in one sentence. Nice work.


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 1:58 a.m.

Please, the guy owns two houses on the old westside, he should know the rules. The fence is a pencil line of the property, why is it needed. It is ugly. The guy went to UPENN, the brownstones there have rules to be kept timely,would he mess up there too? Move!!! bye, bye.


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 12:48 a.m.

Funny thing I missed the part where the HDC is paying his mortgage. If they are not then leave the man alone. It is his property and you are infringing on his pursuit of happiness. This is exactly why we need less government and why our forefathers gave us the second admendment to protect ourselves from oppressive government.

hut hut

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 12:53 p.m.

Are you implying that guns are Mr Breskman's answer to his violations of the law?


Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 12:37 a.m.

Historic districts as done in Ann Arbor are a joke. All you have to do here to raise a ruckus is to create your own fictional historic district like the "Germantown" historic district that sprung up this century and presto, there is a long drawn out battle. But if you are a major business fancied by the President you can tear down what once may have been the oldest home in A2. All you have to do is let is sit until it is falling down and the history is caput. I like historic buildings when it comes to large public buildings but with people's homes, I prefer hands off by government. If the city wants people to maintain a historic flair to their homes, offer them property tax incentives to do so. As is it has just become silly.

hut hut

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 12:55 p.m.

Federal and State laws require homeowners whose homes are in historic districts to adhere to certain rules governing the exterior of their homes.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 11:57 p.m.

I see that the contributor of this brilliant piece is another impartial observer from deep within the Ann Arbor bureaucratic community. Hail to governmental regulation! By the way, look at how the historic preservation rules have made Yspi such a "cool" place too!


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 8:33 p.m.

Personally, I understand the objections on both sides of this argument. And maybe I misunderstand something here, but if the objective of the HDC is to maintain an original uniform look to the neighborhood from the street then what is the reasoning for disallowing the replacement of old windows? That seems overreaching to me. Looking at the picture above I don't see how you would ever know from street level if those were original windows or not. These days they can produce windows that look however you like and you can still use the original wood trim inside and out. And in my experience replacing old single pane counterweight style windows with modern ones dramatically increases comfort and more importantly reduces energy usage. I guess driving hybrids and recycling is where the green mentality ends on the old west side.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 9:18 p.m.

I believe the answer is control freaks with WAY too much time on their hands!


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 8:13 p.m.

As previously stated, nothing about historic districts is cool. Also, old is not historic.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 7:02 p.m.

Just my opinion, but the fence is ugly.

Peter Baker

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 5:43 p.m.

Pro-Historic Districts or not, I didn't read anything in this editorial that argues that preservationism makes Ann Arbor cool, and I'm guessing if you asked most people what did make Ann Arbor cool, it wouldn't be that the fences match the era people have decided to emulate.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 5:13 p.m.

I find Vivianne Armentrouts comments enlightening. It does not matter that most of the comments are pro historic preservation... Because they are against historic districts and criticizing the obvious 0 tolerance of the HDC, to her they are not acceptable. Maybe she can answer/investigate how this group of noble citizens were entitled to grant 360 degree control of the properties of the residents of the OWS in the ultimate back room deal. I am referring to the letter that a independent historic district consultant hired by Roger Frasier carried from the state historic preservation office grandfathering it into pa 169 without a formal study or really any public examination, during the a2d2 planning sessions. This person coordinated the wholesale implementation of PA 169 in the OWS without anything but the approval of a temporary historic committee fashioned for the assemblage of A2D2. How about some actual investigative reporting in this town?

Vivienne Armentrout

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 4:48 p.m.

This is evolving into a classic libertarian vs. protective regulation debate. (Any time we start talking about a &quot;nanny state&quot;, you know where we're going.) I prefer an orderly society to one where my neighbor can do anything he pleases on his own property, regardless of its possible impact on my quality of life as well as my property's value. It is especially important in dense living arrangements, i.e. cities. Given that we accept the general notion of regulating property use, there is an actual economic benefit to Ann Arbor of preserving our historic areas. Donovan Rypkema spoke here several years ago and made the point that the all-important young professionals demographic likes to be around historic buildings. It really is a &quot;cool cities&quot; thing. <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> It is also useful for tourism. When you see promotional material for visiting Ann Arbor, is it the new student high-rises that are featured? No, it is Main Street, the Law Quad, and yes, even the Old West Side. Why is Ann Arbor charming? Our historic districts are a major part of the answer to that question. Thanks to the Historic District Commission. These citizens serve without pay on a body that requires specific knowledge and hard work, plus they get mocked and scorned by people who don't sign their names.

soggy waffle

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 4:17 p.m.

I appreciate Ms. Culvers ability to put together a coherent preservationist point of view on this debate. However, I agree with many commenter's on this issue: HDC regulations are too restrictive. Clearly there was a point in time where putting together these regulations was necessary. I live in a late 1800's house that borders a poorly thought out modernist apartment building. The design of the next door building encourages its residents to walk through our yard, and the orientation of its vast windows means that neither us nor the residents of the large buildings are comfortable with keeping our blinds open. This was a pre-HDC development that could have benefited from a bit of design guidance. But design guidance isn't what the HDC provides. These regulations are proscriptive and overbearing. They prevent even the smallest deviations from original design. Myself and many other tenants in the city are forced to live in cold drafty apartments since the HDC makes it next to impossible to replace windows, instead they prefer an expensive reconstruction of the existing window. These policies ignore 100 years of improvements in home design, not to mention the preferences of the homeowner. Additionally, overbearing requirements create a situation of de-facto housing discrimination, exorbitant design requirements begetting exorbitant rents. These criticisms aside, I understand the purpose and intentions of HDC's. However, they act as gatekeepers of development and are not accountable to the public or even their neighborhoods. The city needs to reform the standards that the HDC's enforce, and make the regulations pattern based rather than dictating materials and each detail. I worry that without substantial local reforms, our state legislature will over react, and we will go through another 60 years of losing historic icons rather than a future where the past is allowed to evolve with us.

hut hut

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 4:07 p.m.

The HDC did not &quot;jump all over&quot; anyone. Mr Breskman chose to violate the law. He was aware of what he was doing and where it could lead. Now he's paying the price for his attitude of thinking that the law does not apply to him as it does his neighbors. The city, the City Attorney and Ralph Weston of the Building Department, not the HDC, is enforcing the law is it is written and interpreted from Federal standards.

hut hut

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 1:34 a.m.

I guess the facts aren't important, only slamming the messenger is.

hut hut

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 : 1:25 a.m.

The HDC is the advising committee, advising the city that the fence does not comply with the Federal guidelines. If the City, meaning Ralph Welton and Stephen Postema, chose to not prosecute to the fullest extent of the law thus allowing Mr Breskman and others to willingly flout it, it's THEIR choice, not the choice of the HDC.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 9:15 p.m.

Loving those &quot;historic&quot; multi-apartment houses with parking lots for backyards!


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 5:16 p.m.

So let me get this straight. The HDC complains to the city admin about the fence because a few people don't like it, and now you want to walk away and claim it's the city hassling these folks over permit violations and not you. Seriously. Can you HDC people get any more disingenuous or namby pamby? I'm not trying to be rude but you all come off like a bunch of dishonest snobs.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 4:36 p.m.

Hut hut please stop schilling for the city. R you a paid blogger by the heijfte admin? If so please disclose.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:57 p.m.

What Ms. Culver fails to provide is any argument that such historic preservation ordinances are a good idea, or that they actually benefit the neighborhoods to which they apply in any way. Her entire argument amounts to &quot;that's the law, deal with it&quot; &mdash; and considering that she is &quot;a retired Ann Arbor preservation coordinator and former long-time member and past chair of Ann Arbor's Historic District Commission,&quot; we had no reason to expect anything else. I believe an open discussion is needed of the supposed merits of such an ordinance and of the commission that enforces it. How could the ordinance be amended to improve its impact? How can disputes be resolved in a less unilateral manner? Are the ordinance and commission really fulfilling the will of the residents, or is it time to rethink their authority to veto even the smallest changes to a property? Should they even have such authority? Ms. Culver ignores all of these questions in favor of a condescending history lesson and some childish gloating over one homeowner's ill-fated clash with an unelected commission charged with enforcing an inflexible ordinance of debatable benefit to the community. That's not to say that Mr. Breskman is blameless in this affair, but given the attitudes of those who oppose him, as demonstrated by this opinion piece, it's easy to see why many are eager to take his side against an unaccountable bureaucracy that cares more about stringent application of arbitrary rules than the realities of living in a neighborhood that has come under control of the HDC.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 5:13 p.m.

Now this.....should be a letter to the editor. Re-submit it as such. Great job.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:53 p.m.

If you enjoy living in a Nanny State where you're watched all the time and your home is controlled by a group of self important &quot;concerned citizens&quot; then the old west side is the perfect location for you. Those of us that prefer to make our own decisions about what we do with OUR Property would never consider buying a home in a historical district. At this point Mr Breskman might as well move because the same neigbors that ratted him out the first time are still watching him. Just admit that you didn't do your research up front and your realator probably &quot;forgot&quot; to tell you about the area you were moving into.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 9:17 p.m.

Yeah wut wut! Because painting your house house orange is the last stop before wife beating!

hut hut

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 4:18 p.m.

If you witnessed someone beating their wife or open burning leaves in their backyard I suppose you'd just let it pass.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:50 p.m.

&quot;a group of concerned citizens&quot;, aka, high priests with an insatiable need to control others. &quot;These high priests are the creatures elected, commissioned and delegated by the proletaire to perpetuate its grandiose and impossible Image. And this they do. They are the custodians of the public morals, meaning the protectors of the huge trick mirror out of which the complexes, neurasthenias, and morbid fears of the public stare back at it in the guise of Virtue, Honor, Decency, and Love. These custodians are also, to leap into the denouement, the censors here under discussion; censors not only tolerated but insisted upon by the people to annoy and harass them and inspire them to further ballot flagellations in order that they, the people, may be spared the disaster of discovering themselves different from what two hundred centuries of self-idealization have driven them into believing themselves to be. This, the high priests do. In every village, hamlet and farm they have their say. They chastise. They make things fit for decent people to see or wear or drink, and people flattered to death at the idea of being considered decent submit piously to the distastement infringements and taboos. All-powerful are the censors. But despite this all-powerfulness they labor under a wretched handicap. They are stupid. Stupidity is the paradox to be found most often in all-powerful Gods. They are stupid, the censors. And the Devil is clever. The Seven Arts which are the Seven Incarnations of Dionysius, the Seven Masks of an unrepentant Lucifer, elude them in the horrific struggle. Or at least partially elude them. Occasionally a cloven hoof is spied and sliced to the bone.&quot; Nonsenseorship - Ben Hecht

Richard Wickboldt

Wed, Feb 15, 2012 : 1:44 a.m.



Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:26 p.m.

To clarify: PA 169 preservation act in it's full force allows the historic district commission to control the entire exterior of your property. So essentially the Historic District Commission can be used for maintaining affordable housing, stopping undesirable development and guarantee any property in the city would be easily guaranteed the tax credit preservation, brownsfeid etc all they had to is take all our property rights away in the old west side. Now a handful of people decide on basically every development issue from a birdbath to a high-rise and these are not elected (see DDA) officials.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

Is this &quot;Childish?&quot;, or &quot;Child-Like.&quot;

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:20 p.m.

The days of the Historic District Commission (HDC) should be numbered. Over the last decade most of us (real) townies have watched the downtown transform from a mid-sized college town into a full-fledged city and I for one welcome the increase in urban density, but here is my problem with the Historic District Commission (HDC). In theory the entire downtown area is should be a designated historic district given that is where the first homes and business were built. I mean it seem logical, right? Yet, why is it that we have so many new and ugly PUDS? Places like Ashley Terrace or the monster at the corner of State and Washington? Why is it that I can walk to Glenn and Anne streets and find historic markers, but no histories structures? I mean this makes no sense! Yet, the Historic District Commission (HDC) has no qualms about jumping all over some poor neighbor who simply puts up a fence (albeit inappropriate) at their house! So, when you compare our lax building codes for our downtown, which coincidently, affect all of us townies much more than a fence, do we really need the Historic District Commission (HDC) telling us what to do?

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 5:10 p.m.

Thank you for pointing that out. A PUD is based on variances and petitioning the city, that is absolutely correct. So, logically, the more variance we accept the less impact the HDC has, right? So, judging by how the downtown looks like now, I see a whole lot of buildings that slipped in under this precedence, which still begs my question, why do we need the HDC? If, I as a developer, want to build a super inappropriate building in Ann Arbor, all I need then is handful of lawyers and a few variances, right? Yet, a neighbor has to put up with the HDC about silly fence? This doesn't seem right at all and a terrific waste of money. Get rid of them!

hut hut

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 4:02 p.m.

Do you actually know what a PUD (planned urban development) is or what constitutes a correctly zoned development? Neither Ashley Terrace nor the structure at State and Washington were PUD's. A PUD is a designed grouping of varied and compatible land uses, such as housing, recreation, commercial centers, and industrial parks, all within one contained development or subdivision (Wikipedia). PUD's are basically a variance from the legally adopted zoning by adding or offering by design or concept some sort of extra public value to the the development in lieu of complying the required zoning. The OWS historic district has almost nothing to do with historic homes or structures. The Old 4th Ward is the same. It has to do with the streetscape, how the buildings look as you pass by. Some people just do not understand the concept of a historic district or what constitutes a historic building.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 3:15 p.m.

I want to start a petition to reform the historic district commission and the Pa 169 act. that was forced upon the old west district homeowners with the invention and execution of a2d2 that created a &quot;master plan for downtown&quot;. What the author breezes over is that the old west side was a National Historic &quot;streetscape&quot; district. A streetscape is the front our homes and usually goes back to the edge of the house /porch line in order to maintain a consistent visual feel from the street. Only a handful of homes in the old west side are truly historic? With The Pa 169 initiated in full force and before any official study and validation. Except for an independent consultant and a back room deal with the state historic office and the A2d2 historic district commission a sub committee not the actual HDC. Though Mr Breskman is / was not in line with even the guidelines established as a streetscape he is a victim of 0 tolerance attitude being executed by the city, it's staff members and as the author eludes to a handful of people who have taken control of the entire downtown, and the old west side and soon if it over 50 years old they consider it their domain. If your interested in helping me reform the Historic district commissions my email is It is time to take back our property rights.


Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 9:14 p.m.

Yeah Hut Hut! Anarchy......then....ummmm......something! Wow!

hut hut

Sun, Feb 12, 2012 : 4:16 p.m.

I suppose you're in favor of barbed wire fences and not obeying something as simple as coming to a full stop for a Stop Sign or red light when there is no opposing traffic. It's a slippery slope when we begin to choose to obey only the laws we like and disobey the ones we don't. Let's not go down this slipper slope.First the split rail fence, then moving on to demolish more older homes for more multistory concrete block six bedroom apartments no matter what the zoning is or what the law is. Next stop, anarchy.