Historic district progresses

Published 11:23 pm Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Daily Star file photo A design committee is educating the public about a National Register Historic District designation for downtown Niles.

Members of the Niles DDA Main Street design committee are educating citizens about a historic preservation effort that could prevent mistakes of the past from recurring.

Community leaders were invited to a presentation Tuesday at Riverfront Cafe regarding an amendment to Niles’ existing residential historic ordinance to include the downtown.

If finalized, Niles will be one of only 75 cities in Michigan with a National Register Historic District designation, committee member Fredda Zeiter said.

Ninety-three parcels were inventoried in Niles, and more than 70 earned historical designation, which means they were built between 1850 and 1962.

A survey on heritage destinations found that tourists with interest in historic districts spend $668 per visit, while those without that interest spend $425 on average, committee member Emily Egan said.

There are also tax breaks and grants available for businesses included in the historical designation.

Preserving architecture

Donna Ochenryder, Niles historian and committee member, explained that in 1967, Niles “had to do something” to fix its ailing downtown buildings.

The city hired an architect, who developed a plan for the downtown for her college thesis project.

As a result, downtown took advantage of “free” urban renewal money. Several historic buildings were torn down and not rebuilt; for example, the Riviera Theatre was demolished in 1970.

“If we don’t have some kind of control, who’s to say it won’t happen again?” Ochenryder asked. “When they’re gone, they’re gone.”

The Riverfront Plaza strip mall, which still stands, was built in the early 1980s.

“Sadly, those folks didn’t take advantage of the river,” said Ochenryder, referring to the mall facing away from the water.
Zeiter said that beginning in 2003, when the metal Kawneer siding was removed from downtown building facades to reveal the original architecture — nicknamed “the Big Brown Takedown” — “it just gave us a better feeling about the town.”

Tax breaks available

Jeanne Watson, downtown property owner and committee member, said the designation offers financial incentives to businesses, including increased property value and available tax breaks and federal grants.

“As a property owner, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t be for this,” Watson said.

A commission with city-appointed members will evaluate significant changes to facades of buildings that fall into the historical designation. This would not likely include most paint colors and does not include any interior changes. The job of the commission will not be to “police” every change a business owner makes.

“What we want is the look to remain integral to the architecture of the town,” Zeiter said.

The design committee, which has been working for about 18 months on the project, is in phase 2: education and awareness. Phase one was compiling documents. A public meeting for property owners will be held Aug. 14 at Riverfront Cafe.

The next steps also include submitting preliminary booklets to the city and state in September, then finalizing the document before the end of the year.