Inside Track: Preserving a historical legacy
Rachel Lee, director of East Hills Council of Neighbors, has a passion for the neighborhood she also calls home.
The director at the East Hills Council of Neighbors sees the importance of preserving historical and architectural character during neighborhood revitalization.
Rachel Lee, who has served as director since 2013, not only has a passion for her community but also celebrates the architectural history still evident today in the compact southeast neighborhood within the boundaries of Fuller, Wealthy, Union and Fulton streets.
“I’m a hobby historian, a history nerd — however you want to put it,” said Lee. “My house is filled with different stories of Grand Rapids because every building has a story. A lot of my stuff is from the Grand Rapids city archives. I like to find stuff that is unique and unusual that you can’t find going down to the library, and help bring it to light and share it with others.”
In addition to her archival photos and cartography collection, her East Hills home features vintage and Mid-Century Modern design.
“Understanding the context of how our city has changed is something I have always been interested in — looking at a building’s history and being able to see the many different faces that building has had and seeing how, a lot of times, we can look to the past, as far as architecture, to see how the beauty of the building can be reborn, for one that has been covered up or that has fallen into disrepair.”
By the early 1900s, East Hills was a bustling business district and residential neighborhood full of architectural influences ranging from Italianate and Queen Anne to Colonial Revival, spurred in part by the construction of a streetcar line in 1875 connecting downtown to Reeds Lake.
Lee said it is the work of residents nearly a century later to create three designated historic districts that has helped protect the architectural integrity and historical character of East Hills.
“It is intact; it is beautiful,” said Lee. “It creates a charming character that I find very romantic. It is something to be preserved, and it is because of those historic districts that we have so many existing structures that remain.”
While her fondness for local history and architectural preservation has led her to present at the Grand Rapids Historical Society on East Hills, it also plays a role in her position with East Hills Council of Neighbors.
“I wear a lot of different hats. We are a leadership organization for the city, for neighborhoods. So it is working with the city, working with the businesses in the business districts within East Hills, and then working with the different city services,” said Lee. “Anything that has to do with making our neighborhood clean, safe and a welcoming place for all, we have a role in it.”
Lee became involved with the organization when, in 1999, she moved into an apartment on Warren Avenue in the neighborhood and walked into the office of long-time organizer Kathryn “K.C.” Caliendo with a question.
“I went into the office and, the story goes, I never left,” said Lee. “K.C. just has this magnetic personality that draws you in and not only makes you love where you live, but makes you want to participate in where you live — and participation is key. When you actually participate, you take a little bit more pride and ownership.”
Lee began volunteering for the organization in 1999, and split her time between helping out there and completing an internship with Bazzani Associates. She was hired on with Bazzani Associates in 2004 and worked on projects in the neighborhood, such as the East Hills Center of the Universe. In 2008, Lee also worked on the deal for The Winchester project, which is owned by her brother.
Lee also served as president of the East Hills Business Association from 2006 to 2010, as board member of the Wealthy Street Business Alliance from 2003 to 2010, as chairwoman of the Uptown Advisory Council from 2007 to 2009, and as a member of the Local Planning Committee for the Michigan Historic Preservation Network in 2009.
When the East Hills Council of Neighbors consolidated the community organizer and crime prevention organizer into a single role, Lee said it seemed like a perfect fit for her.
Her favorite part of her job, Lee said, is working with the residents and local business owners and honoring the work of those who have come before her, such as Dotti Clune and Carol Moore.
“Seeing people’s dreams come to life and helping to make it a welcoming, clean, safe place for all is inspiring,” said Lee.
In 2014, the organization developed its resident-driven Public Space Strategy to outline a clear vision for the community as it continues to move forward with its neighborhood transformation. The four-part strategy focuses on: neighborhood parks and green spaces; streets as public space; East Hills loves Congress; and historic preservation, adaptive reuse and new construction.
“A lot of developers think they are going to come in and ‘turn this block around’ or ‘turn this neighborhood around,’ and we’re like, ‘We didn’t realize there was a problem,’” said Lee. “We are lucky because in our Public Space Strategy we have a tool that I give to any developer interested in developing in East Hills, which is our Historic Preservation, Adaptive Reuse and New Construction section.”
The strategy covers key elements for new buildings, reusing existing structures, additions to historical buildings, development design, visibility of parking, retail frontages and storefronts, building density and mixed-use projects.
Lee said an example of a successful new project is one planned for Cherry and Eastern, which has been a collaborative process between the developer, architect, residents and the council.
“They originally came to us with a design; we did not support the design. They were asked to come back and work with us,” said Lee. “We were able to come up with a design through consensus that we really feel is a better fit with the neighborhood.”
Lee said the organization recently has worked with the city and residents to renovate Cherry Park, has launched a grassroots effort to make Congress School a top choice for parents, has developed an urban forest plan to increase tree canopy by 500 trees, and has begun the second phase of its Complete Streets plan.
“We like to say East Hills is a ‘people first’ neighborhood. We don’t like to talk about traffic safety; we like to talk about people safety,” said Lee. “We are so lucky that in East Hills we have four transit lines that intersect in our neighborhood.
“If we plan for people and we put people first, everything else will follow.”
The council currently is working on new mobility initiatives through a pilot project with the city of Grand Rapids to ensure safety for people, since walking and bicycling are year-round modes of transportation for many residents of East Hills.
“Development is happening all around the city, and when you have all this development, you have more people, you have more cars, you have more cyclists,” said Lee. “It is exciting when you can work on projects that help all different types of people: the person that is using the bus to go to work, the person who is using the bicycle as their main mode of transportation, or the person that is just walking around because we have beautiful architecture.”
Some of the plans range from wayfinding signage for pedestrians to increasing bike-share roads and the type of crosswalks.
“On Cherry Street and Wealthy Street where we have some of the high business traffic areas for pedestrians, we are putting in-street yield-to-pedestrian signs, which is very exciting because it hasn’t been done before in neighborhoods in Grand Rapids,” Lee said.