Francis Grunow:

Digging Detroit


A unique opportunity for inspired vision


As Detroit gears up downtown for the 2005 All Star game and the 2006 Super Bowl, the preservation debate gathers steam. While the media is generally apt to pit building hugger "preservationists" against pragmatic city officials and market-driven owners, pigeonholing the issue in such a way is too simplistic. The question over what to save and what to demolish downtown begs a much deeper dialogue that unfortunately exposes some of the worst of our region's challenges and prejudices. Do we value the city of Detroit and its distinctive urban form?

Once again, we're forced to confront the deteriorating façades of dozens of dilapidated downtown "dinosaurs." Despite recent victories on the rehabilitation front, including Merchant's Row, the Eureka Building, and the hopes of hard fought city-brokered deals with the Book-Cadillac Hotel and Michigan Central Station, the Kilpatrick administration is also actively pursuing a parallel path of demolition for several other landmark structures, including the former Madison-Lenox and Statler-Hilton hotels, without enjoining the same high levels of due diligence. Why the disconnect?

Let's expand the scope of inquiry. A bird's eye view of southeastern Michigan indicates some troubling and interrelated trends: Why are city officials in sprawling communities like Canton Township struggling for a sense of place and planning for the fabrication of "landmark" structures (Detroit News 2/3/04) while real landmarks in the region's only real downtown waste away? Why do city supervisors in that same community complain about being unable to tap into Michigan brownfield tax credits (Detroit News 2/18/04) when vacant and underutilized downtown properties miss the opportunity to leverage tens of millions in Federal and State credits? Why is the City of Detroit giving away tax dollars in the form of a low interest loan to a multimillion-dollar corporation so that it can demolish a heritage property for the sake of surface level parking?

All of this while we talk about retaining and attracting young people who are moving away to more progressive cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco-cities that have lively downtowns with rehabilitated historic properties, better regional cooperation, real transportation options, a greater degree of economic and social integration, and a real value placed on urban living and the importance of density.

A conservative estimate suggests that demolishing twelve of the high profile landmark structures downtown will cost the city at least $40 million-potentially much more if expensive asbestos and other hazardous material remediation is necessary. For these buildings, Federal and State Tax Credits could offer up to $90 million in return for their rehabilitation. With demolition, the city loses nearly 2,000 potential housing units and an additional $11 million in related income and property taxes. Add to this the loss of vital ground floor retail and commercial opportunity and the result is staggering. In how many instances has the demolition of downtown for surface level parking created anything other than a moonscape of gravel lots and poorly used land? This debate must evolve.

What Detroit has downtown is absolutely unique. Architects and city lovers all over the world point to our structures downtown as a singular, irreplaceable asset. What we threaten to demolish for the sake of a couple of sporting events is that which distinguishes the central city from everything else, including the suburbs. While I understand the collective frustration that comes from years of inaction and false promises, we must not miss this singular opportunity to impress the world with our vision and inspiration to transcend conventional thinking. We must be more rigorous. We must be more rational. Probably not every building can be saved downtown, but we've made no concerted effort to figure out which ones can and should.

City after city has offered incentives and models to rehabilitate wherever and whenever possible, as well as creative cues to emulate while buildings sit vacant. My guess is that eight and eighteen-story billboards on the Madison-Lenox and Statler-Hilton would make a pretty Super Bowl penny. Creative (and moneymaking) short-term solutions such as this, as well as real efforts to put some of these properties into the hands of competent developers simmer just below the surface. The media must ask the tough follow-up questions if it wants to entertain an informed level of debate.

It is a question of urbanism not preservation. It is a question of our future not our sentiment. It is a question of populating our downtown with residents, businesses and real 24-hour activity, not pandering to the car culture or the simplest answer. It is a question of holistic and enlightened asset management, not Super Sunday economics. Anything less is our collective loss.

(A version of this article appears in the Detroit News)

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