Jeff Wattrick: Don't Demo Detroit's Future

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

This one comes from Jeff T. Wattrick, the former project manager of The Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy. He works as a writer and lives in Detroit. We also asked DEGC's George Jackson to write on the same topic. Click here to read it.

Detroit has an almost perverse sense of urgency about downtown redevelopment. Don't misunderstand; it's great to see successful projects like the Book Cadillac and Merchant's Row. But development doesn't happen in a vacuum. Every few years, the excitement bubbles up about some silver bullet project that promises to change the face of Detroit. Yet, once the dust settles, every step forward is accompanied by two steps back. Before Detroit can address development questions, serious progress must be made on more significant problems.

Detroit's problems are far bigger than the vacant 1001 Woodward tower, the old train station or even the weed-filled Statler lot. Until Detroit owns up to that fact and attacks the city's more fundamental problems, downtown will never be restored to anything like its former glory.

It's folly for Detroit to aggressively pursue any development strategy, and that includes new construction as much as it does demolishing historic structures like Tiger Stadium. Why exactly are we knocking anything down? And why are we trying to build anything? I think downtown is best served in the short-term by leaving it alone.

City government is an unmitigated disaster. In the last 12 months, a mayor and City Council president pro tem traded their public offices for prison cells. We still don't know the size of our structural deficit. The school system doesn't function but for a few schools of choice and is virtually, if not yet literally, bankrupt. Police response time remains slow, while crime continues to be a problem.

This is not, by any stretch of even the most optimistic imagination, an environment ripe for development. So what should we do with downtown Detroit's inventory of vacant and historic buildings? Nothing. Board them up, fix the roofs, and every so often sweep the sidewalks. Unless something is about to collapse, leave it alone.

The city of Detroit -- and the state, for that matter -- must summon the political courage to find tough solutions for the structural problems that weigh us all down. Real progress remains impossible without drastic, systemic reform. We can knock down any building we want, but the likelihood anyone will build something new is infinitesimally small. Just ask the work crews busily constructing the Cadillac Centre building, the new Quicken Loans headquarters (assuming Dan Gilbert ever decides on a site) and all those condos on the riverfront.

Plainly, everything we have tried to revive our economy, as a city, as a region, and as a state has failed. Census totals decrease and unemployment figures increase. Detroit is a hajj for journalists who wish to write "what's wrong with this place" columns. Are we a "world-class city?" Do you have any confidence that Detroit will be one if we continue on this same well-worn path?  Neither do I.

So let's stop. Everything we're doing, just stop. We need to take a step back and look at the big picture. Detroit's problems cannot be fixed with a development strategy. Not yet. While we reset the fundamental underpinnings, let's embrace the ethos of the Hippocratic Oath: First do no harm.

This is not to say that one day developers will overrun a well-governed Detroit waving green money at historic renovation projects. Nothing is ever that easy. However, it's impossible to separate the building inventory's wheat from the chaff until deeper problems are resolved. If we guess wrong now, there's no way to get the Lafayette Building back from the landfill.

That landfill is already pretty full with great old Detroit buildings -- City Hall, Hudson's, Tiger Stadium to name a few. We certainly aren't a richer, more vibrant city for their demolition. When people speak well of Detroit, they often talk about Orchestra Hall, the Book Cadillac, or Greektown. The steel beams sprouting from the old Hudson's site impress no one. Maybe that should tell us something.

Tiger Stadium is particularly bitter pill. I was on the front lines of the effort to save much of it, not with rallies or petition drives but development plans. We were close. The Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy had secured federal funds, identified millions in tax credit financing, had viable long-term programming plans for the site. None of that mattered because some bureaucrat's timeline was ultimately more important than a remarkable, unprecedented plan to save one of the last Major League parks of the pre-World War I era. Their impatience cost the city a $30 million project and a chance at history.

Development officials say that preservationists too often underestimate the costs of "moth balling" vacant structures, compared to demolition costs. Fair enough. But prematurely demolishing buildings that may have value in a less dysfunctional Detroit carries its own high cost. The character of historic buildings holds an intrinsic value. Until this city functions with some degree of normalcy, we cannot accurately estimate that value in Detroit.

Consider Tiger Stadium again, what value will that property hold without the stadium? What's any weed-filled lot worth in the city of Detroit? Still standing, it was worth a $30 million re-development deal. And, by the way, the Conservancy was paying the maintenance and security costs. Enjoy that demolition bill, Detroit taxpayers.

Moth balling costs are the price we have to pay for a half-century of poor planning decisions and incompetent, often corrupt, government. If we aren't, as a city, prepared to pay it then we risk looking more like some Shelby Township nowhere rather than one of America's classic cities.

Sustainability has become the grand new buzzword of urban planning. Few civilizations have sustained themselves like the Chinese. Theirs is a culture that looks decades and centuries, not fiscal quarters and election cycles, into the future before making decisions. It's an apt model for charting Detroit's future.

It's disingenuous to suggest there's any sort of current demand for the Broderick Tower or the United Artists Building. I question the sanity of anyone who thinks otherwise. Even with Tiger Stadium, "demand" was an outlier largely because of the unique devotion of baseball fans to the game's history. The situation isn't likely to change much in 2010 or 2011 either. Of course there's no demand for the land under any of those buildings either.

What if things are different in 2020 or 2030? What if the emergency financial manager is able to turn around the Detroit Public Schools? What if fiscal sanity is restored to our municipal and state budgets? What if a properly funded and staffed police department can respond to citizens? What if consensus can be reached on regional transportation and smart growth plans? Unless and until those things happen, we cannot accurately gauge the value of much within the greater downtown core.

All of which begs the question: What are Detroit's development agencies supposed to do in the meantime? For starters, they can take the lead on regional issues like transportation and smart growth. It may not be as sexy as a groundbreaking, but it is important work can pave the way for a truly sustainable revitalization of Detroit's urban center.

If the DEGC or Planning and Development can spot unique "one off" opportunities in the meantime, that's great. However they shouldn't try to fix a city with problems far larger than an office vacancy rate. Nor should they be expected to. This requires some level of sophistication on the part of a body politic that too often behaves like a petulant child. We want what we want either now or yesterday.

Geographically, Detroit has a lot to offer. There is no reason our city center cannot once again be one of the great cities of North America. But we have to get serious about fixing the underlying problems that continue to hold Detroit back before we tackle the bricks and mortar. So let's leave the bricks and mortar alone, for now. Like FDR's Bank Holiday, it will be an opportunity to assess honestly what is best in the long term.

If Detroit comes out the other end and we still want to get rid of the Lafayette Building, I'll volunteer to operate the wrecking ball. Please let me know when we get there.

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.


Downtown Detroit

Merchants Row

Michigan Central Station

Old Wayne County Building

Remains of Tiger Stadium

Another closed DPS

Preserving the facade of the Fine Arts Building

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