North End

Roses for Rita: A brief history of a long vacancy in the North End

American flags fluttered down from the windowless openings at 35 Owen in Detroit last month at the groundbreaking for the St. Rita Apartments. More than 100 years old, the building will be redeveloped by Central City Integrated Health (CCIH) into 26 units of Permanent Supportive Housing for low-income residents. It's a win for the community, a win for the residents who will call the building their home, and a win for the historic structure that has been vacant for over a decade.  

But what took so long? A look back at the St. Rita's journey illuminates some of the hurdles to redeveloping vacant historic structures.

In many ways, the fortunes of the St. Rita building parallel the history of its North End neighborhood. "The St. Rita building is one element in the pattern of vacancy and abandonment," says Roger Robinson, who has lived or worked in the North End neighborhood since 1978.

The six-story red brick and white terra-cotta neoclassical apartment building was constructed in 1916. Architectural vocabulary such as the porticoed entry and the heavy base and cornice projected a stately grandeur, and catered to a white-collar social class of apartment dwellers. 

The interior layout of the apartments represents the growing emphasis on and legislation for the health and sanitation of urban apartments in the early 20th century. The dumbbell shape of the building's plan allowed for each of the bedrooms and even the kitchens to have access to light and natural ventilation. The structure of the building was fireproofed steel and it featured an electric elevator that distinguished the building from "walk-up" type flats. 

The building was christened the St. Rita, a name more prescient than perhaps its developers could have realized at the time. St. Rita, an Italian who lived in the 15th century, is known as the patron saint of lost or impossible causes. 

Last occupied some time in the 1990s as subsidized housing, the St. Rita apartments were vacant by the early 2000s. A long period of gradual decline followed.

"There's virtually no one left in the neighborhood that remembers the building being fully occupied," says Robinson. 

In the years that followed, the challenge of bringing the St. Rita building back to life seemed an impossible cause. "Neighborhood residents have been concerned about the St. Rita since its vacancy," says Lisa Johanon, Executive Director of Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDCCDC), which has been active in the North End community since 1993. "Initially, the concerns weren't as much for the building itself but for the problems that a vacant building can invite—such as the criminal element, the potential for a fire by arson, and the lack of safety being so close to a school. It was a site that we saw as particularly vulnerable."

In 2003, CDCCDC pulled a package together that focused on redeveloping the building for senior housing. The project, however, was not awarded Low Income Housing Tax Credits, which at that time were based on a lottery system. 

So the project stalled. "Financial structuring for large buildings is complex and not easy to get," says Johanon. "The reality is the cost to rehab often exceeds the value of any building. This is the struggle within the city of Detroit. Therefore you have to look for subsidized and incentivized financing, and there's not a lot out there."

Neighborhood resident Sarah Pavelko adds, "I think it is of value to redevelop the historic architecture that remains in our neighborhood, but it takes many more resources to redevelop a large historic apartment building."

Beyond financing, potential buyers of vacant structures are often lost in a bureaucratic quagmire when trying to determine a property's ownership and acquire a clear title. Until the fairly recent creation of the Detroit Land Bank Authority, there was no clearinghouse for abandoned properties as liens and taxes piled up. 

And the St. Rita has been no stranger to some of these channels and citations. As reported by Curbed Detroit, the St. Rita was sold at the Wayne County Foreclosure Auction in 2011 and a year later, the holding company who bought the building still owed over $6,000 in back taxes. The St. Rita has also been on the city of Detroit's demolition list, and according to Detroiturbex, was even put on the emergency demolition list during the Kilpatrick administration.

Time is another enemy to vacant buildings and an obstacle to their redevelopment. The longer a building is vacant, the more vulnerable it becomes. Architectural elements disappear or deteriorate. And as the building's surrounding neighborhood struggles to combat the problems that come with vacancy, the historic resource may come to be viewed more as blight than blessing.

"You have to look at it from different perspectives," says Nancy Finegood, Executive Director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN). "A vacant structure may still have historic value but it may also be a safety issue for the neighborhood. It's a very fine line."

"There is the often assumption that because it's vacant, it's blighted," says Finegood. "This is a common misconception. Some of these vacant buildings are good candidates for rehabilitation."

Still recognizing the historic value and potential of the St. Rita, CDCCDC pursued a second attempt at redeveloping the building in 2006, this time investigating Historic Tax Credits in addition to other financing. "We just loved this building—its architecture, the spacious units, the closeness to Woodward and the name—St. Rita." says Johanon. "In the end, the important thing is not who does the project, but that it gets done." 

As outlined in a MHPN report, historic rehabilitation creates jobs, retains skilled trades in the community, and has a ripple effect into other related industries such as building materials and supplies. Beyond the economic benefits, saving historic buildings also has intangible socio-cultural benefits such as improving neighborhood morale and enhancing a community's connection to the past. In the case of the St. Rita, the proposed redevelopment by CCIH is focused on providing housing for the homeless, with veterans given priority. 

"The proposed redevelopment will have a positive effect," says Robinson. "The building is going to be made active. Visually it will be an improvement. People will be living there. That's positive."

The redevelopment of the St. Rita marks the beginning of a new chapter of a long journey in the life of the historic structure, and the end of a chapter of vacancy that has cast its shadow onto the neighborhood for over a decade.

"A vacant building feels more like an ominous presence when it's a large apartment building than when it's a single family home," says Pavelko, "and the St. Rita has a towering presence that can be seen from Woodward. Perception of the neighborhood from a major corridor is important. The redevelopment is beneficial in part because of its visibility."

With a proposed completion within the next year, the buzz of construction activity will once again be heard at 35 Owen Street, just over a hundred years after it first began. And as the St. Rita's windowless eyes blink back to life in the coming months, perhaps those eyes will shine upon other buildings in our communities that are still, for the moment, impossible causes. And give them hope.

This article is part of the "On the Ground" series, where a journalist is embedded in a neighborhood for three months to provide regular coverage. 

Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation

Read more articles by Amy Hetletvedt.

Amy Hetletvedt is an architect and preservationist. Among other professional and volunteer positions, Amy served on the Historic District Commission in Detroit and is currently an editor for the online platform Architecture in Development based in the Netherlands.
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