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Detroit must fight battles over progress

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TOM WALSH: Detroit must fight battles over progress

Preservationists take on the Ilitches

January 30, 2004

BY TOM WALSH

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

A vacant, dilapidated former fleabag hotel called the Madison-Lenox is the latest unlikely building to emerge as a battleground along Detroit's rocky road to revival.

You may remember some of the others:

Immaculate Conception church in the Poletown neighborhood, razed in 1981 to make way for General Motors Corp.'s Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant.

Chene House, a 140-year-old structure that once housed Little Harry's restaurant on Jefferson Avenue, razed in 1991 by owner Walter Bridgforth Jr., husband of singer Anita Baker, to make way for an International House of Pancakes.

The Gem Theatre and Elwood Bar & Grill, were threatened in 1996 with the wrecking ball to make way for Comerica Park, but instead were moved and transported to their current sites nearby.

J.L. Hudson's mammoth downtown building was demolished in 1998, 15 years after the flagship store closed its doors.

Each of the battles over these buildings has pitted preservationist groups against corporate interests preaching progress, with City Hall usually siding with progress.

Undoubtedly more battles will follow: Detroit's dubious distinction as America's most abandoned and disinvested major city assures it. There are too many vacant old structures and not enough demand yet for housing, retail or commercial space in the city to support rental rates or purchase prices that would make costly renovations economically feasible for all such properties.

Vacant since early 1990s

The Madison-Lenox, which received a group hug Wednesday from opponents of its demolition, is designated a historic structure because of its age -- one tower was built in 1900, the other in 1903 -- and its location in the historic district around Grand Circus Park. There's little else distinctive about its history. It was a residential hotel for many years and a rooming house during Detroit's decline. It's been vacant since the early 1990s.

Ilitch Holdings, a company owned by Little Caesar pizza founders and sports team owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, acquired the property a few years ago and now wants to demolish the old hotel. The Ilitches plan to use the land for a surface parking lot, at least until the neighborhood's fledgling comeback becomes a full-scale revival and presents more development opportunities.

The Ilitches maintain that renovation of the Madison-Lenox isn't practical and that the building is dangerous. Preservation groups argue that the Ilitches have presented no proof to show that the Madison-Lenox is structurally unsound, and they complain the Ilitches have refused to consider offers to purchase the property from parties who believe it has potential for renovation as a boutique hotel.

So far, the preservationists have thwarted the Ilitches. On Jan. 14, Detroit's Historic District Commission voted to deny them permission to demolish the Madison-Lenox, despite testimony supporting demolition by Detroit's building and safety chief Amru Meah and its chief development officer, Walt Watkins.

Asked to reconsider

This battle isn't over, however. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick weighed in Jan. 22 with a letter to the Historic District Commission, asking that it reconsider and approve the demolition permit at its Feb. 11 meeting.

Madison-Lenox is tentatively slotted on the Feb. 11 agenda for consideration under "old business" at the end of the meeting, but commission lawyers are reviewing how to handle the mayor's request.

Watkins, who briefed Kilpatrick after the Jan. 14 meeting, told me he was surprised not only by denial of the demolition permit, but also by "the intensity and ferocity, the disrespectful dialogue" of the demolition opponents.

I spoke Tuesday with a number of preservationists who are fighting the Madison-Lenox demolition, and there's no denying they are a passionate bunch. They believe strongly that reusing and adapting historic structures helps cities retain their character, and that historic districts tend to be the most popular areas of cities such as Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The preservationists believe that too many historic structures have already been demolished in Detroit, yet not replaced with meaningful new development. They contend that if the Ilitch family wanted more surface parking near their stadium, they shouldn't have bought a historic building site to get it.

Renovations by the Ilitches

Ironically, all parties to the Madison-Lenox dispute can claim legitimate track records in renovating historic Detroit buildings.

The Ilitches did a massive renovation of the Fox Theatre, which houses their Little Caesar headquarters, and also transformed the old Hughes and Hatcher building into what is now the Hockeytown Cafe and Second City building.

Kilpatrick noted in his letter to the Historic District Commission that his staff has worked with owners and developers on a host of renovations, including the Lofts at Woodward and Merchants Row, both residential projects near the new Compuware Corp. headquarters, plus the Kales building and Book-Cadillac Hotel.

In another ironic twist, all of Historic District commissioners are appointed to their three-year terms by -- you guessed it -- the mayor. I wonder what happens if they remain at odds over Madison-Lenox, or go to war over other historic property disputes down the road.

"In Detroit, our unique challenge is the sheer number of these old abandoned buildings. We have a lot of them, and we can't tackle all of them at once," said Watkins. "And we as a community at large have let these buildings rot for so long, we have to look at what's best for the total economic revival. We've got to outrun the decline by getting things onto the tax rolls faster than we lose things."

A matter of patience

Ultimately, it may be mostly a matter of patience that separates the preservationists from City Hall in the battle over Madison-Lenox and other structures.

The preservationists point to the revival of the Harmonie Park district near the stadiums and the Madison-Lenox, noting that it's just now gaining momentum after 20 years of effort.

A politician's patience is often bounded by the length of his or her term in office. And Kilpatrick, as his campaign vow to bring change to Detroit "right here, right now" showed, is less patient than most pols.

Driven in part by a desire to spruce up Detroit's look by the 2006 Super Bowl but also by his own impatience, Kilpatrick has pushed Watkins and his other aides to move quickly on long-dormant decaying buildings to either find a renovation deal or knock them down.

Get used to these battles. They'll be with us until Detroit's revival is so hot that rising rents make development deals profitable without huge subsidies.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected]

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