Everything Is Going To Be Alright
Demolition and adaptive reuse in Detroit
By Robert and Andrew Linn

Once hailed as “The Paris of The West” and a national center for investment and development, Detroit has become a symbol of failed urban policy over the past 40 years of decline. Vacant skyscrapers and factories dotting Detroit’s skyline testify to the city’s high water mark, a stirring juxtaposition of old and new, decayed and opulent.

Many Detroiters see these empty buildings as liabilities rather than opportunities. The city’s hesitation to re-use abandoned structures is deeply ingrained: “In a city so starved for investment,” says University of Michigan Professor Scott Kurashige, “Detroit chooses short-term profits from marginally beneficial new developments, like parking lots, over preserving buildings with immense potential.”

But some Detroiters deeply appreciate these storied, vacant structures. “They represent the raw material, the building blocks for rebuilding the City,” says Francis Grunow, president of the Detroit preservation group Preservation Wayne. Grunow advocates “adaptive reuse”—remodeling a building after it has outlived its original purpose —for the benefit of small businesses and organizations.

Everything Is Going To Be Alright by Robert and Andrew Linn
Jackie Victor, the owner of Avalon International Breads, a popular independent business in the city, found that reuse has a financial upside. When her bakery opened in June 1997, rent was just $0.50 per square foot. Jack Vandyke, an urban planning transplant from Texas and owner of The HUB, a Detroit bicycle retailer, had a similar experience. “Because reused structures are generally less expensive,” Vandyke says, “we have a much larger shop than would be economically feasible in a new development.”

Some adaptive reuse comes closer to illegal appropriation. Small businesses, such as underground music and arts venues, operate under the radar in residential and abandoned industrial areas. Victor believes the city intentionally ignores these businesses because they might be more beneficial than harmful. But the creative opportunities represented by Detroit’s stock of abandoned buildings have legitimate examples as well.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), which opened October 2006 in a formerly abandoned 22,000-square-foot automobile dealership, is a shining example of adaptive reuse, Detroit’s industrial past, and the city’s hoped-for rebirth. Jessica Dawson, the museum’s administrative director, calls it “a leading local place of exploration for fresh ideas in the contemporary arts.” But, as another employee, Britton Toliver, points out, “Even though we’ve had such incredible artwork through these doors, all first-time visitors want to talk about is how interesting and raw the museum is.” Exterior exhibits reflect some of that raw aesthetic: California graffiti artist Barry McGee has scrawled “Amaze” over the front of the building; the phrase “Everything is going to be Alright,” a piece by Englishman Martin Creed, illuminates Woodward Avenue with a neon glow.

Reuse has its critics, though. “Some very real health and safety issues [arise] in adaptive reuse,” says Wayne State University Professor Robin Boyle. Many developers cannot conform older structures to today’s building codes, which have much more stringent fire regulations, for example. Another common obstacle is funding. Boyle believes traditional funding bodies, such as banks, can’t accurately estimate the cost of adaptive reuse projects, so they are disinclined to fund them. Victor and Vandyke had to personally finance Avalon Bakery and The HUB, while MOCAD “would not be possible without the support from the Manoogian Foundation,” says Dawson.

City policy also seems to favor demolition over adaptive reuse. In 2002, Detroit issued more permits for demolition than for all other building permit types combined, undoubtedly facilitated by the permit fee structure in Detroit: renovating a 22,000-square-foot building—the size of MOCAD—costs $6,980, but demolition costs only $108. A permit to redevelop a structure the size of MOCAD in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by comparison, would be $783.

This penchant for destruction is a sore point for those who find the history of these structures fascinating. “Seeing the demolition of Detroit’s iconic buildings is nothing short of heartbreaking,” says Caitlin Brown, a 24-year old, life-long Detroiter. “I’m near tears every time I drive by a parking lot and cannot recall which beautiful building stood in its place.”

The most egregious example of the City’s mission to demolish came in preparation for Super Bowl XL in 2006. A “blight court” established by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to speed up the demolition process condemned the 10-story, Albert Kahn-designed Donovan Building, long home to Motown Records. After hauling away its remains and paving the site as a parking lot, Kilpatrick told The New York Times this redevelopment was “an opportunity to present people with the next Detroit.”

The blame does not fall entirely on the City of Detroit. The state funneled more money into the pre-Super Bowl demolition of one of Detroit’s grandest and most historic hotels, the Hotel Statler, than they put into the entire Cool Cities Initiative, Governor Jennifer Granholm’s lauded program that offers grants to preserve historic structures, start “cool” businesses, and revive public places.

Perhaps MOCAD’s “Everything Is Going To Be Alright” neon sign has significance beyond the walls of the museum. It betokens a new generation of businesses and institutions that want to want to turn the tide against this wave of demolition and reclaim Detroit’s long forgotten buildings. As Vandyke says, “In Detroit, our history is our greatest asset; it is something that cannot be outsourced and should be considered a social movement. We need not only to value our past, but celebrate it.”


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