The seeds of Heritage Hill were actually sown in the mid-60’s. The area was fertile ground for several urban renewal projects incorporated with ancillary municipally-supported private development plans that would have ultimately leveled about 75 percent of the area which was traditionally referred to as the Hill District. Banks were “red-lining” the area and acquisition of properties by speculators and would-be developers was rife. The frustrations of individuals “fighting City Hall” were at an all-time high and the implications for home owners and residents were frightening.
The nucleus of the Heritage Hill Association founders met in early 1968 and developed the idea of forming a neighborhood public relations organization. The first general meeting was held June 24, 1968 at the WOOD TV building and was attended by 125 people, including two City Commissioners. On November 9, 1968 the Association was incorporated as a non-profit organization.
The first concern of the newly formed Association was to combat the onslaught of bulldozers and wrecking balls. In consultation with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a survey for designation as a historic district was undertaken and a preservation ordinance for protection was proposed to the Grand Rapids City Commission. This resulted in a moratorium by June 1969 on all construction and demolition in the area until studies were completed and proper enabling legislation at the state level was implemented. During that time every structure was photographed, evaluated architecturally and historically, and compiled in a document entitled the Feiss Report.
On March 11, 1971 Heritage Hill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three days later the Part I application for the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ College Park urban renewal project was approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This project would have destroyed all structures from Bostwick to College (eventually to Houseman Field) between Lyon and Fountain.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 stated that no federal funds could be used to the detriment of any site, landmark or district listed on the National Register and was uncontested up until that time. Armed with this act, the Heritage Hill Association invoked Lec. 106-D and demanded a compliance conference that stopped the urban renewal project at the District’s boundary and set a precedent for historic preservation throughout the United States.
Lobbying by Heritage Hill was a main force behind the implementation of State enabling legislation and the City Commission’s adoption of a local historic preservation ordinance, which became effective on April 23, 1973. This ordinance established the Historic Preservation Commission, and Heritage Hill became Grand Rapids’ first historic district.
On April 21, 1971, the Heritage Hill Foundation was organized as a response to a need for funds. Its 501(c)3 tax status allows private donors to make tax-deductible gifts. A Foundation Board of Trustees was established and the two organizations began meeting together. On January 1, 1972, the Heritage Hill Foundation hired an executive director and opened a full-time office.
The first Heritage Hill Tour of Historic Homes was held in May 1969 and was so successful that another Tour was held that October. For five years there were tours in the spring and fall.
Revitalization of the district began with Heritage Hill starting its own urban homesteading project, writing an ordinance for city-wide urban homesteading and convincing the City to implement its own program. Heritage Hill became the model for the beginning of many other neighborhood associations.
Battles were constantly waged during the early years of Heritage Hill. Plans to demolish houses for building and parking lots by private developers, commercial groups, religious, medical, educational, social and municipal institutions were fought. The Heritage Hill Association won most of them, but there were some compromises and several major losses.
As the organizations grew, so did their neighborhood involvement. In 1979, Heritage Hill became a target area of the city, making it eligible for community development funding for public improvements. A staff person was hired to compile residents’ needs and concerns.
In 1982, crime prevention became a top priority of both organizations. With a grant from the City, a crime prevention organizer was hired and a program of block club organizing and neighborhood watch began.
The Association is an action-oriented neighborhood organization which assumes an active role in the concerns of the residents of Heritage Hill. It is involved in zoning, housing, preservation, fund raising, education, planning, crime prevention, block club organizing and a wide variety of activities which affect the quality of life in the Heritage Hill Historic District. Its most important assets are its members who provide the Association with its clout and who are vital to the success of programs which it undertakes.
The Foundation is more directly concerned with the education on the fine points of historic preservation and the rehabilitation of historic homes in the district. It has undertaken major preservation/rehabilitation projects such as renovation of derelict homes and streetscape rehabilitation.
Working together, the two organizations are able to serve residents and property owners in Heritage Hill. With the Association involving itself in neighborhood problems and the Foundation undertaking historic preservation projects, the two groups constantly coordinate their efforts to make Heritage Hill a healthy, happy neighborhood. Our future looks promising.
Chair, Heritage Hill Foundation Board of Trustees