Right-sizing Done Right: Building a Model in Saginaw


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The bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 has had a profound effect on many American cities. In some places, the collapse of the housing market has accelerated a process of decline, begun in the 1970s, that has resulted in declining population rates, crumbling infrastructure, and cash-strapped local governments. This has been particularly acute in the former manufacturing centers of the Midwest, such as Detroit, Cleveland, and even our conference host city, Buffalo. In response, city planners and policy makers have been forced to reevaluate their master plans and readjust their goals. For some this has meant changing the paradigm on which city planning has been based from an expectation of continued growth to a need to manage a city’s contraction. Some call this process “right-sizing” and some have undertaken this effort consciously.

The mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, for example, is in the middle of a massive planning effort that will focus redevelopment and investment in several key areas in order to encourage density and streamline public services. Concurrently, Bing also plans to provide incentives for residents outside of these areas to relocate closer to these centers. Gradually the areas of low population density will be converted to other land uses or land banked for future redevelopment.

In other cities, the right-sizing process has been much more organic and less conscious, depending on available funding and staff. Saginaw, Mich., at the northern edge of southeast Michigan’s auto alley, is one such city. The 2010 census recorded the population at 51,000 people, down from its 1960 population peak of 98,000. Situated astride the Saginaw River, the city covers an area of 18.2 square miles. According to the 2010 census, of the 86,844 properties in Saginaw County, 7,833 remain vacant, an increase of 5.9 percent since 2000.

Stimulus money provided through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program has allowed the city to begin addressing this problem. Acting in partnership with the county and county land bank, the city has undertaken an aggressive demolition and rehab program that has provided jobs for out-of-work contractors and their employees. In addition, Saginaw is also rewriting its master plan to include new land uses for underutilized areas and is working with the EPA to come up with a strategy to address infrastructure concerns in areas of acute population decline. Though the city does not label its activities right-sizing as such, the cumulative effect of the application of these efforts amounts to a shrinking of the city.

Right-sizing, whether conscious or unconscious, poses a number of significant challenges to historic preservationists. In Saginaw, the Neighborhood Stabilization Program target areas overlay a number of local and National Register historic districts. Because of the costs associated with rehabilitating historic buildings and the time constraints of the program, the rehab work has focused on buildings outside of the districts. Many of those leading the efforts to right-size have little to no experience in historic preservation and don’t know how to proceed with preserving these buildings (assuming they would want to in the first place). Additionally, community members, including the Historic District Commission, which had been allowed to atrophy, felt powerless in the face of such overwhelming circumstances.

The situation in Saginaw begged a number of questions, among them: How can this climate be changed? What can be done to include preservation in the larger effort to redefine the city?  How can one convince city leaders to prioritize the places that matter to those left in the city? How can the community be engaged in this effort? There are no simple answers, but in October of last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Michigan Historic Preservation Network hired me to serve as a preservation specialist in Saginaw and to find the answers to several of these questions. While I’ve by no means found the answers, I have gained valuable insight into the role that historic preservation can play in right-sizing.

In the ten months since I began the work in Saginaw I have attended Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) planning meetings to intercede in the process on behalf of Saginaw’s historic resources. Additionally, I’ve acted as an intermediary point of contact for the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office and the NSP staff, helped shape historic rehab building specifications, and made design recommendations for infill projects.

I’ve also conducted a windshield resurvey of Saginaw’s historic districts and updated the city and county’s GIS systems, then made recommendations to city decision makers based on this resurvey. Beyond the scope of the NSP program, I’ve sought to strengthen the historic district commission by recruiting new members, holding training sessions, and creating plans for improving its community outreach and CLG status.

Lastly, the position has taken me into the community. By attending neighborhood meetings, and attempting to form a historic preservation advocacy group that unites the various preservation groups already active in the community, I hope to give the citizens of Saginaw a powerful voice. Part of being a community liaison and advocate also means writing extensively and passionately about Saginaw and the work being done there, which I’ve done on my monthly National Trust blog, and in articles for the Michigan Association of Planning magazine and others.

I hope you’ll join me on October 21st for the session “Right-Sizing Done Right,” for a conversation on issues facing right-sizing communities, strategies for preservationists, and an interactive activity that will allow participants to apply their own expertise to a shrinking community.