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
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?
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
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.
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)