Detroit is sending another building from the golden age of architecture to a landfill. Wednesday night, the Detroit Historic District Commission put a rubber stamp on City Council’s demolition of the Park Avenue Hotel. The Ilitch family of companies and the Duggan Administration used heavy pressure to make way for the new Red Wings hockey arena. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
For another couple days the Park Avenue Hotel will stand here next to the Eddystone Hotel as it has since 1924. Cranes with wrecking balls will smash the Park Avenue down. Only one tall building will be left in this 50 acre stretch of empty lots. For a couple decades, city and state government have been paying the Ilitch family to buy up property here between Woodward and Cass Avenues. In some cases, government pays them to buy it. Then government pays them to tear it down. More than a thousand people signed a petition to save both buildings. A month ago, I asked City Council woman Mary Scheffield why city council disregarded those people.
“Based on a lot of the information that was presented to us, with some of the federal guidelines and that they couldn’t have housing inside the arena due to the regulations of the federal government, I think it was the federal government, we had to move forward with the plan and there was no other plan for the hotel at that point.”
“But couldn’t you have asked the Ilitches to change their plans? There’s a whole bunch of vacant land. Move the arena over twenty feet?”
“That was discussed,” Sheffield said. “That was discussed. That was definitely discussed. We fought extremely hard.”
This past Wednesday the Detroit Historic District Commission heard testimony from a lawyer and an architect hired by Olympia Development, the Ilitch real estate arm. Olympia was saying homeland security rules were forcing them to tear down the Park Avenue Hotel. Preservationists have been questioning that. Olympia dropped that argument and said the building will stop trucks maneuvering in and out of the hockey arena.
Nancy Finegood testified before the commission. She is an accountant and runs the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.
“What would be built on the site of the Park Avenue Hotel if it is demolished? And the answer according to the current plan is a green space and a loading dock? How could a loading dock contribute to a lively streetscape or neighborhood character the way a rehabilitated Park Avenue Hotel would?”
Olympia and city council have touted the 8,300 construction jobs and the 1,100 permanent jobs the project is supposed to create. They might have demolished both hotels without pressure. City officials have been scared that Olympia will give up on the project even though Detroit residents are paying for more than half of it.
Rick Pruss is with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
“There is a problem with our community. 42,000 people are in jail. I’d like to see us have some type of impact and reverse those trends and put people to work.”
Pruss echoed the city and Olympia claims that the Park Avenue hotel was keeping thousands of people unemployed.
Those who testified against demolition believe that the Ilitches, the mayor and city council have hinted toward bad things happening if the Ilitches don’t get what they want.
“We are now at the last hour, called on in a time of urgency that has been created by Olympia Development.”
Amy Swift works at Lawrence Technological University.
“As a professor of architecture in my design studios when I have a student who proposes a tabla rasa design, which is a blank slate design, I tell them it’s a bad design. We’ve learned through urban renewal that this is a bad design.
Swift turned toward the architect and lawyer hired by Olympia. City residents will be paying at least $250 million.
“There’s really no option? I think that we should go back to the drawing board. This is a lot of public money and the public’s intentions were to save this building. Those intentions are not being honored.”
The Ilitches have demolished or destroyed iconic buildings such as the Madison-Lenox Hotel, The United Artist Theater Building, the Detroit Life Building, the Detroit Engineering Building and the Order of Moose. Most of the buildings have been turned into parking lots.
The Michigan Public act 169 of 1970 gives five reasons why an historic building can be torn down. Only one reason has to exist for the wrecking ball to swing. The Ilitches, through their attorneys, Miller Canfield of Detroit, say the Park Avenue Hotel is a threat to public safety. It’s not. They say it’s financial hardship for the owner. No. The Ilitches are billionaires. They claim it’s standing in the way of community benefits.
John Lauve was born in Detroit, worked as an engineer at GM’s Clark assembly plant. He now lives in Holly and often comes to criticism big public projects. Lauve made a Freedom of Information request to the Detroit Downtown Development Authority. The DDA writes that the Ilitches got $39 million to buy up 25 properties needed for the arena. Lauve told the Historic District Commission:
“This isn’t Ilitch’s project. It’s the state of Michigan that’s paying for it by the school aid fund. That’s who’s financing it. Ilitch is not giving us a great gift. Just recently we paid $1 million for the Park Ave Hotel. It was supposed to be an Ilitch donation. We gave him $39 million to buy all the land he said he was going to donate to this deal. That $39 million could have redone both hotels.”
Lauve said he spoke to the the Joie De Vivre Hotel chain who said they would be happy to renovate the Park and Eddystone Hotels.
Sixty-eight year old Thomas Wilson testified.
“When people come to Detroit they don’t come to see ruin porn. They come here to see the Lions, the Red Wings the Tigers. To go to the Fox Theater, The State Theater, the Gem. They are not really absorbed and obsessed with ancient relics from a bygone era.”
Wilson said the best way to deal with old buildings is tear them down and then sing a song. “Thanks for the memories.” Many in Michigan think if an old building is in perfect shape they like it. If it needs repair it should be torn down.
Hundreds of thousands of suburbanites pour into the city every month to watch sports. Then they leave a few hours later. Just a few thousand suburbanites and out of staters are moving in permanently to be near the old buildings, both renovated and wrecked. Which group will help the city more?
Nick Miller moved to Detroit from Ann Arbor. He grew up in Ohio.
“It’s very short sighted to assume that people DON’T come here for these buildings. I would say the large proportion of the new residents come here specifically for these buildings. Tearing them down means the city shooting itself in the foot. This is Detroit’s competitive advantage. No other place will have these types of buildings.”
Miller is an urban planner. He says Olympia should switch placement of the loading dock and the practice rink. That would solve the design problem.
“The real question here is whether a developer can devise plans which create an unnecessary conflict then use that created conflict to justify tearing down an historic asset.”
Tom Lewand is a key aid to Mayor Mike Duggan. He said Olympia might save other Detroit buildings.
“If this project goes forward it’s the best chance those fifteen buildings have that the Ilitches own of being protected. They’ve agreed to work with us, develop those buildings. To me this is a big step toward preservation of those historic buildings not against it. Toward it and the only way we can do that is by keeping the neighborhood walkable and livable. So I am asking on behalf of Mayor Duggan please carefully consider your vote?”
The historic district commission chair is Jim Hamilton. He is a retired business professor from Wayne State University. Hamilton has lived in historic Boston-Edison for thirty-five years. He was president of the Historic Boston-Edison Association. He has shown a respect for the process in his neighborhood. He’s enforced maintenance of original facades, no commercial operations from garages and no rooming house activity. He chairs the Historic District Commission for the city but figured that city council was more qualified to evaluate historic property issues.
“In my opinion the unanimous judgement of a representative body like the council is to be respected. I am prepared to accept the judgement of the council that in the words of the ordinance, “the resource is a deterrent to a major improvement program that will be a substantial benefit to the community” and I support the motion to issue a notice to proceed with the demolition of the hotel because it meets the terms of the ordinance.”
Fellow commissioner Lauren Hood, a community activist interjected. “Can I just say something on the record though?”
“Sure,” said Hamilton.
“Moving forward we exist as an exclusive body from city council and I don’t think we have to vote in the way they voted on something.”
“No we certainly don’t,” said Hamilton.
“If that was enough we wouldn’t be here tonight,” Hood said.
“It’s very clear that we are an independent body and we have to make a decision. But as he said, I think we can bring in information from all different places about how the public interest lies in this case. I think in this particular case we have a public body, an elected representative body, that has provided us information about where the balance of interest lies here. And I’m prepared to respect that.”
The commission is supposed to be a watchdog body. It’s supposed to speaks for the buildings, for the meaning they give to millions of lives, for the billions of dollars in tax money that’s been invested in the last hundred years. The chair of the commission said he trusts city council to make the moral decisions. So the commission voted to tear down the Park Avenue. The fight is over.