Luis Peña says his love for the character and quirks of old buildings can be traced back to his childhood.
“My mom says the house we lived in was 100 years old,” he says of the first home he remembers living in. “Secret little things in houses always appealed to me. Like, we had a laundry chute in our house that was always fascinating to me, and my grandma had a milk door at her house, which I thought was very cool.”
Now, as the city of Kalamazoo’s historic preservation coordinator, Peña, 26, sees lots of “cool things” as he works to help keep Kalamazoo’s historic districts and buildings from disappearing. His job requires overseeing changes or improvements to historic buildings and helping owners and builders in their efforts to retrofit these buildings for modern uses without sacrificing their historic character.
“An existing, standing building is the greenest building, so it makes the most sense to me to keep one that’s already up as opposed to putting up a new one,” Peña says. “I’m not anti-development or anti-modern things, but I think if you have a building that still is in rather sound shape or is a complete gem, we should strive to keep those. They are unique to Kalamazoo. It sounds kind of cheesy, but these buildings don’t exist in other places.”
How did you get where you are today?
I was a music major for the first three years I attended Western Michigan University, but at one point I was like, “I want to be able to do school things, not just music things” so I switched to an English major. One of my English professors, Dr. (Brian) Gogan, introduced me to a lot of stuff like grant writing and civic engagement. I got an internship with the planning department of the city and met Sharon Ferraro (the former historic preservation coordinator, who retired earlier this year).
Planning really interested me because I never knew how a city worked. I was also starting to get into history at that point, especially genealogy, because both sides of my mom’s family came here in the 1830s and 1840s, and they held land in the county. It was Sharon who talked to me about getting a historic preservation degree because it is something that I could to that involved history and that’s applicable in planning. I went to Eastern Michigan University — the same place Sharon got her degree — and got a graduate assistantship working in the archives there. When Sharon decided to retire, one of my professors told me about the posting for the job and I applied and was hired at the end of 2021.
What kind of work do you do in this position?
A lot of interfacing with citizens — that takes up a good portion of the time. People have questions like “I live in a historic house or X, Y or Z neighborhood that’s a historic district; can I make this change to my house?” I talk them through what they can and can’t do. I’ll make site visits with them to look and tell them, “Doing this might be easier than you think” or “I would do this because it’s going to be easier than doing this.”
I’m the city liaison for two commissions: the Historic District Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission. The Historic District Commission provides regulatory oversight of the properties in historic districts. I review and rule on the applications for that work that come in for those properties. Some have to go to the Historic District Commission, however — bigger projects like additions or changing windows or demolition. And I work with the Historic Preservation Commission, which is the educational outreach end of the job.
How does historic preservation fit into city planning?
My role usually interfaces a lot with the building-department side of things. There are between 2,500 and 2,700 properties locally that are designated historic. When permits get pulled on one of those houses, I have to sign off on it before the permit gets issued. But for bigger developments or properties like those downtown that people want to change, then that requires planning to consider how to give these structures contemporary and efficient uses now but still retain the character that makes them historic, which I think is very important.
You must have to know a lot about how historic structures are built.
I’m the first to admit that I’m still learning. There are a lot of great people that I can reach out to if I get in over my head. For my first two months on the job, I worked in tandem with Sharon, and it was a great time to not only learn more things, but also learn the ways that you handle these things, because bringing people into it is a whole other dimension. You know, a house doesn’t talk, but people do. I always try to tell people I’m not an architect, I’m not an engineer, I’m not a mason, but I know those people and I can certainly reach out to them.
And a part of the beauty of old things is that they were just built to work. They’re almost inherently simple.
What do you like about your job?
I obviously love old houses, and they’re all different. They have their own unique things and different flairs. One of my favorite parts of the job is being invited into people’s houses. Being from Kalamazoo, you drive by a lot of houses and think, “Man, I wish I could just get inside that house just once,” and then eventually you get to do it (he laughs). It’s really cool to be able to do that.
— Interview by Marie Lee, edited for length and clarity