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Money, practicality keys to depot vision

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Money, practicality keys to depot vision

City Council won't be swayed by sentiment

February 26, 2004




The 91-year-old Michigan Central Depot serves as a backdrop for a Detroit police car making its rounds Wednesday. The depot is to be renovated and become the new police headquarters.

Now for the hard part.

It may have taken a year of negotiating for Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to announce Tuesday night that he wants the city to buy the eyesore Michigan Central Depot. But it'll take even more work to complete his vision of turning the depot into the city's new police headquarters.

At a minimum, it means convincing the City Council that the deal makes sense. It also means finding the money to pay for a project whose price tag will run into tens of millions of dollars.

If the obstacles are real, the promise remains tantalizing.

The deal would, with a single stroke, restore one of Detroit's most blighted buildings and deliver a shot of economic energy to its neighborhood in southwest Detroit.

Moreover, aides to Grosse Pointe businessman Manuel Moroun, who owns the depot, have projected an 18-month construction schedule. That could mean a renovated depot would be ready in time for Super Bowl XL at Ford Field on Feb. 5, 2006. A Super Bowl bash held in the beautifully ornate waiting room of a renovated depot could serve as a powerful symbol of Detroit's comeback.

First, though, there's the City Council.

Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, who grew up in the Corktown area near the depot, said practicality and not sentimentality should determine whether the city does the deal.

"The first thing we have to do is build a police headquarters that works," she said. "Secondary to that is saving a beautiful historic edifice."

Among the questions Cockrel wants answered are how the deal will be financed, how much it will cost and whether the city also plans to move in other criminal justice agencies, such as the 36th District Court.

"There's no deal until council approves it," she added.

Her colleagues agreed.

"If it comes to the table and it has a major price on it, that's the only problem I would have with it" because of "the budget crunch we have," said Councilman Alonzo (Lonnie) Bates, who reminisced Wednesday about beginning his journey to college in Alabama from the depot.

Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, who spent summers in the Corktown area with her grandparents, said, "I probably have a more romanticized embrace of the subject than some." But Watson said she needs to be convinced the depot is environmentally clean and ready to be converted into a state-of-the-art police headquarters.

Aware of the approval process ahead, Mickey Blashfield, director of government relations for Moroun's CenTra Inc., promised full cooperation.

"We will work with all the offices of the city to make sure that they have good answers and can make the best decision possible," he said.

Built in 1913 and closed in 1988, the depot is a 550,000-square-foot structure, which includes the main waiting room with an office tower behind. For years it has stood as a symbol of Detroit's decline. Virtually every window is broken; anything of value has been stripped; all of the building's heating, plumbing and other mechanical systems must be replaced.

Despite estimates over the years pegging the cost at $100 million or more, construction experts contacted by the Free Press said the cost might be closer to $50 million to restore the portion of the building to be used by the Police Department.

These experts, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the project, said restoring the basic structure -- including all new windows and mechanical systems -- should run close to $40 million. Finishing several floors in the tower for police offices will add perhaps $5 million, they said. Finally, restoring the spacious, high-ceilinged waiting room to its original grandeur will cost several million.

That leaves out any costs for refitting the balance of the tower for tenants besides the Police Department, and that could add millions more. Even so, with some creative financing and cost controls, the Moroun organization -- which, under the deal, would do the renovation -- could save money.

For example, Moroun, who controls a vast network of real estate and trucking companies, could enjoy economies of scale in purchasing materials. Moreover, by allowing the city to pay for the depot over a period of years, Moroun might save the city substantial borrowing costs.

But it's unclear how turning over all the work to Moroun's CenTra would comply with the city's bid regulations, which give preference to Detroit-based contractors. CenTra is based in Warren.

The mayor said Tuesday night that he will unveil details of the plan at a news conference next Wednesday.

If Kilpatrick can make it happen, the depot will change from a decaying hulk to the new anchor for its southwest Detroit neighborhood.

"We've supported the concept since the initial announcement, so we have great hopes for the project," Kelli Kavanaugh, administrator of the Corktown Citizens District Council, said Wednesday.

Blashfield said the community spin-off benefits are among the best parts of the deal.

"This is in absolute concert with so many of the good things happening in southwest Detroit," he said Wednesday. "This is a community that has really practiced bootstrap development. They're willing to roll up their sleeves and make the most out of this."

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

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