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Project showcases Kilpatrick's dreams for Detroit

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TOM WALSH: Project showcases Kilpatrick's dreams for Detroit

March 4, 2004



Tiptoeing among shards of glass and shattered slabs of marble, past the wall graffiti writ large in spray paint declaring "Catfish is the Man! Roll Them Joints!," we navigated the seventh floor of the abandoned Michigan Central train depot in Detroit.

My initial gut reaction to this scene was anger.

How could we, collectively, as a community allow this to happen?

How could we just abandon this magnificent 17-story structure, designed by the creators of New York's Grand Central Terminal?

How could we allow vandals and thieves and every moron with a spray can to run wild in there?

How could we let the 1990s, the most prosperous decade in U.S. history, come and go without doing a thing about the old depot?

If Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was thinking such thoughts as he toured the depot hulk with a small group before his news conference Wednesday, he didn't let on.

Instead, he stomped his sizable shoe onto the concrete floor and pronounced it "solid, way better than the rickety floors at the Book-Cadillac," another all-world eyesore building in Detroit that Kilpatrick wants renovated.

He was wowed by the views visible through the wood frames that once held windows: the historic Ford Rouge plant to the west, the Ambassador Bridge to the south, the abandoned Tiger Stadium and downtown Detroit to the east.

And he told a little story about his stint as a teenage laborer on the Fox Theatre renovation in the late 1980s. "I worked for Turner Construction," he said, "and our job was to take the old debris and bust it into pieces, so we could sweep it up." Beneath or behind the debris, the crew would often discover parts of the old Fox that were sturdy or salvageable.

The train depot also has much that can be saved, he said, pointing to the terrazzo floors on the seventh floor, which appeared to be intact beneath the dust.

Kilpatrick has pushed relentlessly -- some would say stubbornly -- to attempt restoration of the Book-Cadillac as a hotel and the train depot as a new police headquarters. Both are massive, costly projects. He estimated the cost of the depot deal Wednesday at $100 million to $130 million. Both projects have involved many months of arduous negotiations, and neither is a done deal yet.

Still, Kilpatrick forges ahead, spurred by his belief that restoring these buildings to their former grandeur will have great symbolic import. The message: Detroit is arising at last.

As I toured the train depot Wednesday, I sensed that it will also have great symbolic import for Kilpatrick's political future and legacy.

Will this mayor be seen as a Don Quixote figure, a 33-year-old youngster of grand dreams and schemes that are beyond his ability to fulfill?

Or will he be hailed as the leader of the charge that pushed Detroit past the tipping point, when the city's course changed from decline and disinvestment to growth and revival?

Until now, it has been premature to judge Kilpatrick, now 26 months into his first term as mayor. In each new administration, it takes a year to find the bathrooms, decipher the budget you inherited and figure out who's who among the civil servants. Year Two is for pointing the horse and spear in the right direction and starting to gallop. In Year Three, it's appropriate to start measuring whether the mayor is covering any ground or slaying any dragons.

Kilpatrick knows it's time to start delivering on promises he has made and the big dreams he's put forth, none dreamier than the resurrection of the train depot.

Interestingly, during the past 12 months of discussion about possible sites for a new police headquarters, the mayor himself had not set foot inside the train depot until Wednesday.

In fact, the last time he remembers being in it was when he was 13 or 14 years old, in the early 1980s. His uncle was catching a train there. "We wanted to go upstairs but we couldn't because most the building was already closed," he said.

Kilpatrick knows going public with the train depot plan is a big step for his political future and legacy. Maybe it was superstition, maybe it was foresight, but either way, "I didn't want to step inside the building until I knew we had a deal," he told me Wednesday.

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

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DESIREE COOPER: Depot deal's a bold return to greatness

March 4, 2004



Once we were a city of dreamers, a people who knew that our success depended as much upon symbolism as cement and sinew. That's why we erected public buildings that still inspire awe: the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Public Library and the Wayne County Building.

But one by one, we've let many of our cultural icons crumble. Now we turn to the last decayed monument to our past -- the Michigan Central Depot -- and ask ourselves: When did we forget how to be great?

Library a symbol of vision

Greatness used to be a Detroit mind-set. Take, for example, the struggle nearly 100 years ago to build a magnificent public library. When the commission laid out plans for an extravagant new building, Detroit residents refused to fund it. But the city's visionaries would not be dissuaded.

"Detroit cannot afford to stand for anything mean or picayunish," said the Library Commission in 1912. "It has a reputation as one of the foremost cities in the land, and its library, as well as other public buildings, should maintain that reputation."

When the library finally opened in 1921, it bore the unseemly price tag of nearly $4 million, about $35 million in today's dollars. The plans, which allotted millions for paintings, mosaics and stained glass, were never scaled back despite skepticism, politics and war.

From the beginning, the building was as irrational as it was beautiful, as inessential as it was germane to our collective self-worth. But Detroit was in the midst of an architectural arms race, and no one wanted to build anything less befitting of Detroiters than buildings like the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Michigan Central Depot.

When the depot opened in southwest Detroit in 1913, it, too, was a leap of faith. Located away from the city center, there was every expectation that Detroit would continue to flourish, expanding westward. The 21-acre, Beaux-Arts building was a $15-million architectural achievement -- that's about $270 million in today's dollars. It was designed by the architects of New York's Grand Central Terminal, which was restored to its original splendor in 1998.

Removing the shadow

Because the north-facing side of the building is angled, the train depot casts a diagonal shadow upon itself in the sunshine. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick may never be able to do anything to erase that structural shadow, but he's offered a way to remove the historical one.

"This building has been a symbol of our dilapidation," said Kilpatrick as he described plans Wednesday to transform the depot into the new Detroit Police headquarters. "Now we want it to be a symbol of our renaissance."

Costing between $100 million and $130 million, the deal is far from closed. But Kilpatrick is a Detroiter, and Detroiters know that nothing's worth doing unless there's a throng on the sidelines saying that it can't be done.

Still, the project will take more than creative thinking and solid financing. It will take the same kind of pride we had in ourselves when we built the city's lasting landmarks nearly a century ago.

"Mean surroundings make mean people," said Adam Strohm, the head librarian in 1914. "Surely the city of Detroit in its prosperity and courage is willing to have beautiful public buildings as monuments of its true progress."

Contact DESIREE COOPER at 313-222-6625 or [email protected]

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