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Detroit's Race Against Time

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Detroit's big face-lift racing against time

Some things will be ready, but worst eyesores likely won't

June 21, 2004

BY JOHN GALLAGHER

FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

With downtown streets still echoing from the cheers of last week's Pistons' parade, Detroit's leaders are working hard to prepare for an even bigger event -- the weeklong parties and celebrations surrounding Super Bowl XL in 2006.

Less than 20 months before the National Football League's championship game at Ford Field on Feb. 5, 2006, the city can boast of making slow but clear progress toward its goal of preparing downtown for the scrutiny of an estimated 100,000 visitors, 3,000 media representatives and a worldwide TV audience in the hundreds of millions.

Scrubbing downtown of blight is central to that preparation. Some of downtown's worst eyesore buildings, including the Book-Cadillac and Statler hotels, are in line to be either renovated or demolished. Several other city-owned abandoned office structures, including the Metropolitan, Lafayette and 600 Woodward buildings, have been slated to be converted into loft-style apartments.

But on the less positive side, private owners of some of downtown's worst eyesores seem to be doing little or nothing to clean up their buildings. Moreover, it is clear now that the schedule is too tight to finish the city's entire wish list of renovations in time for the Super Bowl. Short of a construction miracle, neither the long-delayed Book-Cadillac renovation nor construction of any of the three permanent casino hotels will be finished by Super Bowl week.

"I think it really is a mixed bag," says Eric Larson, a downtown developer who serves as chairman of the civic group Detroit Downtown Inc., which represents property owners and business leaders. "I think we've made huge progress -- huge progress. But you've got some significant pieces in between that you can't shake loose."

City officials say they believe their clean-up effort, known as the Lower Woodward Improvement Plan, is crucial to the city's image as Super Bowl visitors accustomed to sites like New Orleans or San Diego deal with Detroit, instead.

Faced with the likelihood of not finishing everything on time, civic leaders now say that the presence of several half-finished projects may in fact send just the right signal during Super Bowl week. They believe that a downtown humming with construction activity may symbolize a city on the upswing in a way that even completed projects do not.

City officials are also reminding everyone that the clean-up effort will pay benefits far beyond the Super Bowl week and that the deadline is an artificial one.

Consider the Book-Cadillac. Closed 20 years, the hotel is now the subject of intense negotiations between the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the development arm of the city, and the Ferchill Group of Cleveland, which hopes to renovate the property as an upscale Westin hotel. Gary Brown, the DEGC's project manager overseeing the interior clean-up work now taking place, said trying to reopen the Book-Cadillac during Super Bowl week would deprive the hotel of its own spotlight.

"I think when the Book-Cadillac opens they'll want their own week of black-tie parties and everybody remembering what the Book-Cadillac was," Brown said. The likelihood of not finishing everything on time also means Detroit's Super Bowl planners most likely will fill in some of the blank spots with a mix of outdoor music stages, heated hospitality tents and similar venues. And plans are still being developed to apply a splash of colorful advertising on the sides of several downtown towers, either with vinyl advertising wraps or the jumbo television screens that define New York's Times Square.

Just which buildings would be wrapped with what advertisements, and who will pay for it, remains under study. But by way of example, the city of Columbus, Ohio, recently authorized a plan to adorn some of its downtown eyesores in vinyl building wraps. One such building, a 1910 department store that had deteriorated over the years, was covered with a giant advertisement for the Mini Cooper car brand.

Peter Scantland, president of Orange Barrel Media, the Columbus company doing the work, said that wrappings are a great way to disguise blight in an older downtown. "They're colorful, they grab your attention, they're very visually stimulating, and it's a great way to cover over an exterior that needs some reconstruction," he said.

Without a doubt, downtown Detroit will be a messier place the next couple of years, as the city rips up streets to install new water lines and rebuilds streetscapes with lighting, paving, landscaping, and other improvements.

"It's a little messy right now, but it's like painting your house. It's messy for a while, but it comes together at the end," said Linda Bade, president of Detroit Downtown Inc. "Ripped up is a good thing."

It also may help to remember that Houston, the site of the 2004 Super Bowl, experienced similar anxieties with its downtown makeover leading up to the game. After years of effort and debate, Houston completed a new light-rail transportation system and an ambitious streetscape improvement plan just days before the big crowds arrived there for the game earlier this year.

"Overall, we're very encouraged about the activity and the progress that's being made," Ken Kettenbeil, a spokesman for the Detroit Super Bowl XL Host Committee, said Friday.

Detroit has been pressing many private owners to sell, renovate or at least patch up their eyesores. While some do nothing, a number of downtown building owners are taking advantage of the city's new facade-improvement program. The program provides matching grants for owners to clean up the exteriors of their buildings.

Some important new projects will be ready sooner rather than later. The city's new Campus Martius Park, at Woodward and Monroe in the heart of downtown, is scheduled to open late this year, providing an outdoor skating rink and concert stage that is likely to see significant use during Super Bowl week.

Larson said it's important to remember how much progress has been made downtown in recent years. But he admits that those advances make the remaining examples of blight that much harder to tolerate.

"We sill have a number of absentee landlords and building owners that continue to be extremely difficult and nonresponsive, noncooperative, with respect to doing anything with their properties," he said.

"It is very discouraging because I think the in-fill that needed to take place is catching hold but there are still some fairly big buildings that are holdouts that you just can't get the owners to move on."

The NFL's team of Super Bowl planners will get their own look at Detroit's progress. About 20 NFL planners will spend this week in Detroit in intensive planning sessions to get ready for the 2006 events.

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

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