George Jackson: Preservation is Part of the Picture

Editor's Note: With all the buzz around the fate of Tiger Stadium and the Lafayette Building, Model D asked two outspoken leaders in the preservation and development communities to share their points of view with our readers.

The first comes from George Jackson W. Jackson Jr., president and CEO of Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, a non-profit organization that works on economic development projects with businesses, government and other organizations.

We also asked writer Jeff T. Wattrick to share his point of view on the same topic; click here to read it.

The great debate over historic preservation is over. In fact, it never really started. Every public entity in Detroit recognizes the value of preserving older buildings for adaptive reuse. I support the idea every day when I go to work in the Guardian Building – one of Detroit’s most revered architectural gems. Detroit Economic Growth Corporation professionals “get it,” as do all the public authorities we work with, including the City of Detroit, and state and federal government. Preservation is good. Restoration and reuse can contribute to economic development as well as connect us to our history and culture. None of us has taken the other side of that argument.

In fact, the record over the last eight years shows that no organization has actually done more than Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) to restore or renovate vintage properties in our city. In fact, we have assisted in almost every major successful vintage property cleanup, fix-up, adaptation or restoration in Detroit during that time period.

If the Book Cadillac is a model for success, it should be noted that DEGC worked hard for nearly six years to close the deal that saved the building. If you are encouraged by the loft conversions going on in Midtown, don’t forget that DEGC facilitated $1 million in brownfield tax credits for the renovation of the Willys Overland industrial building into 77 housing units. As you walk up to Cliff Bells for jazz and a drink, notice the façade of this Albert Kahn building. We managed a grant to pay half of the cost to restore it.

We’ve used every tool in our toolbox to turn old buildings into new economic engines, from historic tax credits, conservation easements and Renaissance Zones to brownfield incentives, gap financing and façade improvement grants – to name just a few. We have supported every restoration that has come before us with a viable financial plan and qualified partners. The DEGC scorecard of “saves” includes 120 buildings that we have supported with these tools. They include small successes that have enhanced a street-corner, such as the Detroit Cornice and Slate building on St. Antoine, help for cherished cultural gems such as the renovated Detroit Opera Theatre and huge projects meant to transform a whole district, such as the Book Cadillac Westin Hotel.

Here are a few more projects we have supported:

DEGC is using history to help redefine and "brand" places as a way to spur investment. With the support of the Mayor and Detroit City Council, we have assembled and managed more than $10 million of investments in the area around Harmonie Park to create the new Paradise Valley Cultural and Entertainment District. The Arts League of Michigan has opened the Virgil H. Carr Cultural Arts Center in the Harmonie Club with our support as one of the anchor tenants of the new District.

We are also preparing to break ground on streetscape improvements and park amenities to revitalize Capitol Park in commemoration of the location of Michigan’s first state capitol. These improvements will blend in with the $24 million of other downtown streetscapes already completed or planned by using street lights and other touches that are compatible with the early 20th Century style of many of the buildings.

The proof is beyond any reasonable doubt. DEGC and our primary client, the City of Detroit, are leveraging Detroit’s rich history and architectural legacy in every way we can to promote economic development. Case closed.

Of course, historic preservation to spur economic development is a good idea, but it’s difficult to execute. The places we’d like to save were originally created because people had money to build them and they expected to make money by using them. That is as true today as it was then. We can only restore those places where there is money to do the work, and the work will generate more money to sustain the property.

Detroit is a working city, not a Greenfield Village. No one really expects the City of Detroit to spend what it would take to create an open-air Museum of 20th Century Architecture. The buildings we save must have a purpose beyond a nice façade for tourists to see and architects to study. The difference between a building that is restored and a building that is demolished does not depend on DEGC’s perspective, which does not change. It depends on the characteristics of the building itself and the resources that other private developers, foundations and major institutions can bring to the project to make it a viable economic proposition.

A perfect case in point is the Argonaut Building in New Center. The Argonaut opened in 1930 as the design studio for General Motors legend, Harley Earl, but GM closed it in 1999 to move into the Renaissance Center. The historic structure will reopen a month from now as the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education, a second campus for the College for Creative Studies. DEGC facilitated $21 million in brownfield tax incentives to support the $145 million development, but the Argonaut’s preservation also required GM to donate the 11-story building, Robert Thompson’s education foundation to contribute $19 million to set up a charter school, Alfred Taubman to donate $15 million and CCS to put up $55 million from its capital campaign, including $8 million donated from local foundations.

With all that other support behind it, DEGC can’t take credit for saving the Argonaut Building. A lot of others pulled their weight. But by the same token, DEGC should not be blamed when others don’t step up and a building must be demolished to fight blight. We don’t recommend that step lightly. We evaluate every case on its merits -- and we analyze all other options before we act. In those cases, DEGC is not the primary agent, we are simply the messenger of the news that a particular empty lot has a better chance of attracting new investment than the deteriorating building that once stood there.

Preserving older buildings is an important economic development strategy, but it is not the only one. We will be able to rekindle the historic character of Capitol Park because the City has moved the bus stops there to a brand-new Rosa Parks Transit Center -- a gleaming example of modern design executed in glass, steel, and striking fabric canopies.

Campus Martius creates an old-fashioned town center downtown, but the tenants of the new Compuware Building and One Kennedy Square help give it life during the lunch hour. We actually can have it both ways. We can celebrate the tremendous burst of talent and economic power that Detroit demonstrated in the early 20th Century, but we don’t have to get stuck there. Great cities embrace both the old and the new, and Detroit is a great city.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with Model D here. If you'd like us to consider them for publication, include your name, phone number and an e-mail address where we can reach you.



Harmonie Park

Guardian Building

Entrance to Cliff Bells


Capitol Park

Campus Martius

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here

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