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Madison Lenox Hotel Update

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DEVELOPMENT DISPUTE: A parking lot or presentation

Madison-Lenox Hotel stands at center of conflicting ideas on how downtown Detroit's Harmonie Park district should be revitalized

February 18, 2004

BY JOHN GALLAGHER

FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

Not since the Hudson's building came tumbling down in 1998 have Detroiters engaged in a major public dispute over architectural preservation. A new fight is emerging over an unlikely candidate, the modest Madison-Lenox Hotel in the newly trendy Harmonie Park district.

Vacant and decaying since the early 1990s, the century-old structure stands only eight stories, but it looms over the city's redevelopment efforts. The escalating battle centers not so much on one building, but rather on two distinct views of how to revitalize downtown Detroit.

On one side is Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his top aides, who want to demolish the Madison-Lenox as part of their "clean, safe, beautiful" agenda for downtown. That involves renovating or razing a dozen or so so-called dinosaur buildings prior to the arrival of 100,000 out-of-town visitors and media for the 2006 Super Bowl at Ford Field. The old Statler Hotel on Washington Boulevard is also on the list.

On the other side is an array of enthusiasts, architects and investors who see preservation of Detroit's stock of older buildings as key to the city's revival. They are distressed that the Madison-Lenox's owner, Ilitch Holdings, wants to tear it down for a surface parking lot.

"Our concern is that we're all going to wake up the day after the Super Bowl to a massive hangover and discover that everything is a surface parking lot," says Steve Haag, a Hamtramck resident and foster care worker who chairs the nonprofit preservation group Friends of the Book-Cadillac.

This simmering dispute began to boil last week after the city's Historic District Commission rejected Kilpatrick's request to let Ilitch Holdings demolish the building.

That marked the second time in two months that the seven-member commission voted against demolition of the Madison-Lenox. Commissioners say Ilitch Holdings has presented no evidence, including any studies of the building's structural integrity or lack of it, to justify demolition of a "contributing structure" in the Madison-Harmonie Historic District.

Angered by the commission's action, Kilpatrick vowed to find a way to demolish the building. That could mean an appeal to the state's Historic Preservation Review Board, an appeal to the courts or a move by the mayor to appoint new members to the commission. Three members' terms expired this month, but those members will serve until Kilpatrick names and City Council approves replacements, which could take months.

Built initially as two towers, the seven-story Madison was erected in 1900 and the eight-story Lenox three years later. The two hotels were connected by a dining area later. The structure served as a residential hotel for many years and as a rooming house. The structure has been closed and vacant since the early 1990s.

Crucial area

Everyone agrees that the Madison-Lenox stands at an epicenter of Detroit revival. Across the street stands the Detroit Athletic Club, just to the west is the Detroit Opera House, to the east is the Music Hall, behind lies the restaurants and galleries of Harmonie Park and a short walk away stands Ford Field, where the Super Bowl will be played just under two years from now.

Each side can point to valid reasons to back up its view. Those who favor demolition note that derelict downtown buildings can stand for decades, slowly falling apart, without any realistic plan for renovation. Recently, the city has attempted to step up code enforcement, but all sides agree that dozens of downtown buildings remain in a perilous state.

Al Sebastian, a spokesman for Mike and Marian Ilitch, the sports and pizza entrepreneurs who founded Ilitch Holdings, says the owners have no choice but to demolish the Madison-Lenox.

"Our history in the city of Detroit is one of restoration," he said in a statement, pointing to the Ilitch-owned Fox Theater and other projects. "However, it is not possible to save every building in the city because it's not economically feasible for every structure."

Calling the Madison-Lenox a hazard, the statement added that "it already was in a serious state of neglect after years of abandonment" when the Ilitches bought it.

But preservationists disagree. Haag and others point to the Fox, State and Gem theaters, Orchestra Hall, the Detroit Opera House, Harmonie Park and other landmark sites once endangered that now thrive thanks to preservation efforts. Indeed, they say that the city's new sports and entertainment district, including Ford Field and Comerica Park, probably would not exist had not the Ilitches first renovated the Fox.

Moreover, Gene Hopkins, a preservation architect with Detroit-based SmithGroup who serves this year as national president of the American Institute of Architects, cautions that a parking lot on the site might look worse that the eyesore building does today.

"It would totally change the whole feel of the block, the relationship to the DAC, that whole urban feel of that area," he says. "It'll change how people react to that space. And that's why you can't look at the building as an individual entity. You really have to look at the sum of the parts."

Critics note that dozens of Detroit structures have been razed in recent decades and the resulting surface parking lots diminish, rather than enhance, the downtown streetscape.

"Our concern is that it would look like the other surface parking lots that are behind the Fox Theatre," Haag says. "Very desolate, empty most of the time, certainly not lending itself to a vision of vitality or excitement."

Some of the Madison-Lenox's neighbors are in favor of saving the eyesore if possible.

David DiChiera, general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre, whose renovated Detroit Opera House is one of the city's great preservation victories, said he hoped the city would "do everything possible" to save at least the facade of the Madison-Lenox.

"I think this is a perfect place for a small European-style boutique hotel," he said.

Ted Gillary, executive manager of the Detroit Athletic Club, said he "certainly would rather have a building there than a vacant lot, because we're going to be looking at the back of another building and that's not going to be very attractive."

He added, though, "It's only the owner who can make a decision whether it's a viable business plan. You can't force them to do something."

Not far apart

The two sides may be closer together than they think. Preservations agree that Kilpatrick's record on saving landmarks is already noteworthy. The mayor has pushed his aides to redevelop the derelict Book-Cadillac Hotel and to move the city's police headquarters into the old Michigan Central Depot after a renovation. Moreover, under his leadership, several other downtown structures are in line for redevelopment as loft residential buildings.

Haag acknowledges the mayor's preservation credentials and says his group wants for the Madison-Lenox only what the Book-Cadillac received -- a thorough assessment and serious search for a new developer.

A middle course might be to clean up the Madison-Lenox in hopes of a future development. That might involve sealing the windows, lighting the exterior, and maintaining the street-level amenities such as landscaping and the sidewalk.

With the Ilitches and Kilpatrick in favor of demolition, the outlook for the Madison-Lenox cannot be good.

If nothing else, that may produce yet another test case in Detroit of the relative values of parking versus preservation.

Contact JOHN GALLAGHER at 313-222-5173 or [email protected]

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