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Super Bowl spurs demolitions in Detroit

Hosting Super Bowl XL last February spurred Detroit's civic leaders to conduct a three-year makeover of its downtown, long known for empty buildings and deserted streets. New sidewalks and street lights were installed; office towers were converted to loft apartments and condominiums; new shops and restaurants opened in once-empty storefronts. As a result, downtown hasn't looked so good in years.

But the most controversial aspect of this makeover was the city's demolition of several historic structures in the drive to get ready for the Super Bowl. Among the buildings to fall in the weeks and months prior to the game on February 5 were the landmark Statler Hotel, a well-known 1914 high-rise; the Madison-Lenox Hotel, a more modest, eight-story structure that was part of the city's Madison-Harmonie Historic District; and the Donovan Building, a circa-1920 office building by architect Albert Kahn that once housed the Motown Music headquarters. Several smaller structures fell, too, leaving big gaps in the downtown streetscape.

Part of the sting in losing these buildings was that, in some cases, the city seemed to ignore basic landmark protections afforded by state law. Detroit's Historic District Advisory Commission twice refused Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's request to tear down the Madison-Lenox; the mayor's building department then condemned the building as unsafe and razed it anyway.

The dispute over demolition involves two competing redevelopment philosophies. On one hand, there is Mayor Kilpatrick's "clean, safe, beautiful" mantra for cleaning up downtown, in which the city targets its so-called dinosaur buildings—those that have been vacant for at least 10 years—for either fast-track redevelopment or demolition.

On the other side is an array of enthusiasts, architects, and investors who see preservation as key to the city's revival. They note that livable and walkable areas such as Detroit's Greektown, Corktown, Midtown, and Harmonie Park consist of historic properties patiently restored by investors. Once threatened with demolition, these districts today rank as some of the city's most appealing and diverse neighborhoods.

George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, led much of Kilpatrick's clean-up effort. He says he turns to demolition only as a last resort.

"Economic reality does play a role," he says. "When you have a structure that is not economically feasible to restore, I think you have to look at demolition. Obviously, you can restore any building if you have the money to do it, but no one is going to restore properties if they cannot make money off their investment." Jackson notes that some buildings, such as the now-lost Statler, had sat vacant for decades. Intensive efforts to structure a financing package for that building failed. Facing the deadline of the Super Bowl, the city opted to tear it down instead of waiting for a savior.

Francis Grunow, executive director of nonprofit group Preservation Wayne, gives Kilpatrick credit for helping developers remake several early-20th-century office buildings downtown into residential lofts. But he worries over the pace of demolition.

"There's definitely been a move

Preservationists hope to save the Michigan Central Depot (top left), but it's too late for the Donovan/Motown building (above), the Madison-Lenox Hotel (left), and many others.

to rehabilitate in a way we haven't seen in decades. At the same time, we've lost a lot of key buildings. It's definitely been an accelerated pace of both," he says.

Everyone agrees that Kilpatrick has worked hard to try to restore Detroit's two most famous vacant eyesores: the Michigan Central Depot, a 1914 structure by Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem, who designed New York's Grand Central Station; and the Book-Cadillac Hotel, a 1924 Italian Renaissance-style high-rise by Louis Kamper. The city pursued, in vain, a plan to make over the depot (vacant for more than a decade) as its new police headquarters. Detroit still hopes to

Preservationists hope to save the Michigan Central Depot (top left), but it's too late for the Donovan/Motown building (above), the Madison-Lenox Hotel (left), and many others.

close on a redevelopment deal for the Book-Cadillac, vacant since 1984.

But even if the city goes to great lengths on individual projects, preservationists like Grunow say there is no overall philosophy that employs historic preservation as an approach to urban redevelopment. This complaint is not new here. City administrations have long been hostile to broad planning schemes, preferring a deal-by-deal approach that often slights preservation.

Preservation groups have been helping to craft state legislation that would make more historic tax credits available for renovation work. Another idea would give legal standing to groups like Preservation Wayne to intervene in lawsuits over historically designated buildings. So far, though, these ideas have not progressed past the talking stage. John Gallagher

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