Oakland County’s Preservation Architect Ron Campbell Talks Adaptive Reuse and Preservation

Historic preservation

has become an integral part of (re)development in Oakland County. Adaptive reuse and preservation projects have helped to maintain iconic buildings that are significant landmarks in their communities, preserving not just the structure’s architecture but the character of the neighborhood as a whole. Area entrepreneurs like Curt Catallo and Ann Stevenson (owners of Clarkston Union, Vinsetta Garage and the forthcoming Fenton Fire Hall, all located in historic buildings that were reborn) have made this a cornerstone of their business ethos. Historic preservation is the socially, economically and environmentally responsible thing to do – it doesn’t just look good; it is good.
Here Oakland County Prosper checks in with Oakland County’s Economic Development and Community Affairs’ Principal Planner/Preservation Architect Ronald A. Campbell for his insight into the importance of historic preservation.
What is your background? What made you want to pursue and lifelong passion of historic preservation?
I have been a partner in an architectural and engineering firm for 30 years. I joined Oakland County in 2006 as the design architect of the Oakland County Main Street program (a Nation Trust for Historic Preservation program for downtown revitalization) and preservation architect to help any community/municipality that wants to preserve and have me involved.  I work with a lot of communities and people who are great to work with. 
I always loved history and architecture from grade school on up. Thinking it could only be one or the other, I chose architecture. This was a time before historic preservation was thought of. Little did I know that both loves could be combined. I love helping communities with historic preservation for all the above reasons (social, financial, and environmental), just in a different order. I place social responsibility first, then environmental and financial. I love working with and helping the communities that are trying to preserve their history. It forces you to be creative as you have to think outside of the box, and the benefits to society are numerous. It is very rewarding when you attend a dedication of a one-room school restoration, or uncover a history of a community building that astonishes people, or see a neighborhood reverse disinvestment and become more of a home to its residents, or a house that is reclaimed to be used for another 100 years. 
What are some examples of different historic buildings in Oakland County that have been successfully repurposed?

  • The Former Sears Department Store and Warehouse in Pontiac is now Lafayette Market and residential lofts.
  • The Van Hoosen Barn in Rochester Hills is now a museum exhibit hall with a community room and offices.
  • The Birmingham Train Depot is now the Big Rock Restaurant. 
  • The church in Clarkston is now the Clarkston Union Restaurant.
  • Another church in Clarkston is a private residence.
  • Vinsetta Garage in Berkley is now a restaurant. 
  • A former school in Ferndale is now law offices. 

These are just a few of the many adaptive reuse projects in Oakland County.

Editor’s note: Another project currently in the works is the 86-year-old Brady Lodge in Independence Township’s Bay Court Park, which the Township would like to rehabilitate and preserve as a seasonal venue for the park. Ron is currently working on a detailed report for the Township on this project.
What do you think has contributed to the current interest in preserving and repurposing (or renovating) historic buildings?
A couple of reasons:
1. Financial: it makes sense from the incentives that promote preservation to the economic viability of reusing the property.
The incentives include the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Credits; that has certainly helped – 20% tax credit for certified rehabilitation, which are available for National Register Properties and comply with the Secretary of the Interior Design guidelines. But there is also a 10% Federal Tax Credit for any building which was put into service before 1936.  
Before Michigan eliminated the state tax credit in 2011, the private sector invested $11.43 in our communities for every one dollar of tax credit they received between 2005 and 2010.
Generally, with experience with people doing rehabilitation design and construction, it costs 10-15% less than new construction. It is labor-intensive, which is good because more of the dollars spent remain in the local economy. You can’t import labor as you can drywall or doors.
2. The greenest building in America today is one that you don’t have to build – it already exists.  If we recycle a soda can to save the environment how much more are we doing when we recycle a building?
So I think the sustainability movement has helped bring the preservation ethic to the forefront.
What are some of the challenges in working with historic structures and what are some of the ways to overcome them?
You have to be creative and be able to envision things not as they are but what they can be. Many people don’t have that ability. You also have to be patient; you don’t necessarily go in with, “This is what we are going to do.” You let the building speak to you through research, documentation and creative design. You also need the right team: architects who are experienced in designing old buildings and builders experienced in working on old buildings. The horror stories that you hear about rehabilitation are from the inexperienced, impatient and uninformed. There are just a host of things that you can encounter. Experience can head off some of them; creativity and patience can help with the rest.
What are some of the advantages of renovating or repurposing a historic building versus tearing it down and building new?
It is environmentally the responsible thing to do. It is economically the responsible thing to do. It is socially the responsible thing to do.

For additional information about historic preservation efforts in Oakland County, Ron can be reached at campbellr@oakgov.com.