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A renaissance for the Renaissance Center

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The new Jefferson entrance of the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit will be open toward the end of the year. Officials from General Motors, which owns the building, say they were looking to make the center more a part of Detroit and less an entity unto itself.

GM HEADQUARTERS: A renaissance for the Renaissance Center

Removing berms is just the first step

August 26, 2004

BY BRIAN WHITE

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

It took 10 years for the ancient Greeks to tear down the walls surrounding Troy.

In Detroit, it took 25 years to level the ramparts that separated the Renaissance Center from the city it was supposed to resuscitate.

The structures, called berms, are gone. In their place a new RenCen facade is rising. It is not quite finished, but over the past couple of weeks, passersby finally have been able to visualize what the new approach to Detroit's most prominent office complex will look like.

Perhaps the berms could have been vaporized sooner if the legions of Detroiters who hated the pair of two-story concrete structures along Jefferson Avenue had been organized into an army of Homeric proportions. Instead, it took more than two decades of complaints and a change of ownership at the building for the walls of Castle RenCen to be breached.

The two berms housed the complex's heating and cooling equipment. Critics slammed them from the moment they arose for creating a fortress-like feeling at the Renaissance Center. Attempts to make the walls less imposing by planting vines in them did little to lessen the sense of separation.

"It never represented the community," said Gene Hopkins, an architect at Detroit's SmithGroup and president of the American Institute of Architects. "With the barriers of the berm, it was an exclusive environment. It was an impediment to what the word renaissance means."

The berms were only the most visible part of the RenCen's problems.

The brainchild of Henry Ford II, who saw the project as a way to revitalize Detroit, the complex cost $337 million but did little to halt the bleeding of business from downtown -- despite its hopeful name. Its dizzying design, by architect John Portman, turned people off, and the RenCen encountered constant financial problems since its 1977 opening. The owners sold it to General Motors Corp. in 1996 for the bargain-basement price of $73 million.

The work on the Jefferson side of the RenCen began in 2001 with the demolition of one of the two berms. The other came down in 2002.

The work forced the closure of the center's People Mover station, which was built on top of the eastern wall. GM, which owns the building and has its headquarters within, moved some of the heating and cooling equipment from the berms into the parking garage below the complex. It also outsourced some of its power needs to DTE Energy.

Since then, workers have been creating a new, more open Renaissance Center. By the end of the year, construction should be complete, according to GM spokesman Jim Burke.

In place of the old obstructions, GM is creating a welcome mat of sorts. A set of granite stairs surrounded by landscaping will lead from Jefferson to a glass football-shaped entrance into the lobby.

Hopkins said the original physical walls created a mental barrier for Detroiters.

"People I talked to hated them," he said. "They felt uncomfortable dealing with the berms. You're going from one place into another, and it felt like maybe you weren't supposed to go there."

Behind the old walls, it was difficult to even find the way into the building, said Matthew Cullen, a general manager at GM who is overseeing the renovations.

"Historically, no one knew where the front door of the Renaissance Center was," he said.

The idea is to integrate the RenCen with downtown Detroit, rather than it being a place where employees drive into and out of without spending a moment outside, while pedestrians on the street simply pass by, Burke said.

"It really didn't draw many more people than those who had a specific purpose to come to the building," he said.

Burke said when GM began making plans to renovate the RenCen the company wanted to create a "feeling for the Renaissance Center where we weren't just occupying space within the city, but an area that was really part of the city."

The old sense of separation hid the RenCen from the city, said Debra Harris, who is supervisor of the U.S. Post Office in the building.

"If something is in a closet, you can't see what's in it until you open it up and take the clothes out," said Harris, who has worked at the center's post office since 1992.

The post office is on an odyssey of its own, having moved from the ground floor to a temporary location while construction goes on. It will return to its old home once the renovation comes to a close.

The project to open up the front of the RenCen is part of a $500-million renovation, all of which is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year. Burke said GM is also working on the interior of the building and the Detroit River side of the RenCen.

Before, the building "wasn't open to the riverfront. It really was a shame," Burke said.

The work on the river side is similar to that being done along Jefferson -- opening the building to the space around it. A granite plaza -- inset with a map of the world with lights representing major cities -- will stretch down to a promenade along the river.

This path will stretch from Joe Louis Arena on the west to Rivard on the east. There, it will join a path the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy is building from the Belle Isle Bridge, which connects the city to the island park.

Cullen said the changes finally will make the RenCen more a part of Detroit.

"We wanted it to be open to the city," Cullen said. "It had been walled off to the water and walled off to the city and we wanted to be very open to both."

The sense of isolation was intentional, at least in part.

Portman, the Atlanta architect who designed the RenCen, has said the berms provided a sense of security to people who had fled Detroit, and also deadened noise from traffic on Jefferson.

Hopkins, the architect institute president, said the sense of isolation "was by design, absolutely."

During the 1970s, there was a movement in architecture to create buildings that were self-contained, he said. Buildings like the RenCen were "looked at as one-stop: living, shopping, working."

"They were meant to be isolated from the community," Hopkins said. "Fortunately, this was a short period."

A Renaissance Center that is integrated with the downtown is vital to the effort to redevelop the area, he said.

"I think it's a key element of the puzzle to creating the downtown where people want to live and work," Hopkins said. It's been "a long time coming and we're finally getting there."

Contact BRIAN WHITE at [email protected]

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^ I'm glad that period of "isolation" was short lived as well. I can't stand public or large commercial buildings that are difficult to get into. I actually never knew what the front of the RenCen looked like before the berms were removed. I was quite suprised to see it. I'm also glad the mall inside will be receiving a major overhall. When I went in a few years ago, it was really lame and depressing. There were hardly any people in it. I'm hoping the RenCen will become more of an attraction to the city like the Sears Tower is to Chicago. As for Portman's comments on why he placed the berms there, I don't think really anyone is agreeing with him. The berms were a poor incorporation into the design, which really hurt the center financially, as well as Detroiters' feelings.

I like how the article mentioned its plans to work on the riverfront. This whole illuminated map thing seems really cool. I need to find a day where I can explore Detroit's continuing riverfront improvements.

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