DETROIT, March 03, 2009 – Since I arrived in 2003, Detroit Economic Growth Corporation staff has tried to generate a viable redevelopment of the Lafayette Building. At that time it had already been vacant for nine years. We tried working with developers from all over the country. The Ferchill Group, a developer that specializes in historic redevelopment projects and who redeveloped the Book Cadillac building, took a long look at it and declined, saying “the economics weren’t even close.” The reality is the building is badly deteriorated. It has structural issues. The efficiency of the floor plan is problematic. In short, the costs of rehabilitating it are just too great to allow a viable business plan.
At the same time, pieces of the building are falling to the ground, creating a hazard for pedestrians. It stands as a glaring example of blight along a street that already has seen significant redevelopment, and will soon get a complete makeover with a new roadway and an attractive streetscape. So the time to act is now, not in some vague hoped-for future.
I’d like to get something else straight. I am a great fan of Detroit’s magnificent architectural history. I get to appreciate it every day I come to work, as I walk through the tiled arches in the lobby of the Guardian Building – home to DEGC and an icon of Art Deco architecture.
Our organization also appreciates the potential economic development value of vintage buildings, and that is why we have been on the front lines of preserving them for the last eight years. We worked hard for nearly six years to close the deal that saved the Book Cadillac building, and it is obvious to anyone who has visited what is now the Westin Book Cadillac that the effort was well worth it.
So it should be no surprise that I’m bothered by the strident claims of a small group of individuals who continually whine that the DEGC has no sense of history. Or worse, that we are involved in some kind of “conspiracy” to rob Detroiters of their vintage buildings. With loud voices and well-placed calls to reporters, they always get good coverage whenever a blighted structure must be demolished – either for the safety of the community or the potential for redevelopment.
To put those complaints in perspective, let’s look at the preservation scorecard of DEGC. We work as the staff of the Downtown Development Authority, the Economic Development Corporation, the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and in partnership with private developers who put their own funds at risk to generate new lives for older buildings.
Compare our scorecard to the “successes” of these self-described “preservationists,” and it becomes very clear who is actually saving buildings, and who is simply generating noise.
Obviously, DEGC has worked very hard to preserve and protect more than 130 vintage buildings where the restoration could deliver economic benefits. We also helped move the Gem Theater and the Elwood Bar and Grill to make room for Comerica Park.
Now let’s look at the other side of the DEGC scorecard. DEGC has taken down two long-vacant city-owned buildings and part of Tiger Stadium in four years, and has funded the demolition of 11 privately-owned blighted structures. Removing the buildings has eliminated blight, pedestrian hazards and opened up much greater possibilities for new investment.
Our ratio of 10 saves for every demolition demonstrates our clear support for adaptive reuse of older structures. I challenge the most vocal critics of DEGC to produce a comparable scorecard of their own successes. From what I’ve seen it’s likely to show nothing invested and nothing delivered to save these historic buildings. I recall several preservationist organizations holding fundraisers to “Save the Book” and those same organizations contributed absolutely nothing towards the Book’s preservation efforts.
I understand that nonprofit organizations cannot offer tax breaks, as we can, but we don’t actually restore buildings with incentives, we use them to leverage support from private investors who put their own resources at risk. We do it because when they are profitable, Detroit benefits.
Even if they don’t have the wherewithal to tackle restorations themselves, preservationists could improve their scorecards in four ways:
- Patronize businesses that are in vintage buildings. Each time a restoration generates profits, it raises the chances for another one.
- Don’t complain. Recruit investors and developers and help us match them with businesses willing to pre-buy or pre-lease space. Put skin in the game, not just talk.
- Press for better laws and better enforcement of existing tools to fight blight.
- Spend time going after bad property owners, instead of vilifying organizations that actually do preservation, such as DEGC and the City of Detroit.
Every other major city in North America – whether it’s New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Toronto has more than just old buildings. For every gleaming skyscraper in those cities, a vintage building was torn down to make room for it. In our own downtown, Compuware’s world headquarters, One Kennedy Square and the soon-to-open Rosa Parks Transit Center were all built on land opened up after older buildings were torn down.
Sometimes, those new buildings are valuable because they are surrounded by historic structures, but it’s also true that the value of many vintage buildings has grown because a new building went up in the neighborhood. Detroit is no different. We can celebrate the tremendous burst of talent and economic power demonstrated here in the early 20th Century, but we don’t have to let ourselves get stuck there on every street corner. Great cities embrace the old and the new.