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The RenCen renaissance

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ARCHITECTURE: The RenCen renaissance

GM's renovations make HQ more inviting, less disorienting

January 6, 2005

BY JOHN GALLAGHER

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

rencen_inset.jpg

NOW YOU SEE IT: The imposing berms that blocked the front are gone, giving passersby a full view of the elegant new entrance.

In any compilation of Detroit's most loved and most hated architecture, surely Renaissance Center would top both lists.

Undeniably impressive, the office, hotel and retail complex with circular class towers has been the city's postcard image since it opened in 1977, its tallest and most visible structure. But the RenCen's soaring towers loom cold and foreboding to many viewers. When built, the edifice almost defiantly walled itself off from both the waterfront it bordered and the rest of downtown.

Worst of all, the RenCen's labyrinthine byways gobbled up lost souls like a Motown version of the Bermuda Triangle.

Happily, General Motors Corp., which bought the building in 1996, is nearing the end of its eight-year, $500-million remake of the RenCen, and the money has been well spent. Transforming so singular a work of dominant architecture wasn't easy (rather, say, like trying to change the mind of the late Henry Ford II, the RenCen's original sponsor), but GM's chosen architect, Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, has accomplished about as much as possible without tearing down and starting over.

The final piece, GM's elegant new front entrance to the RenCen, is to open at noon Friday. The once-hated mechanical berms that defaced the Jefferson Avenue fa

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It seems that there is a hidden gem within the four sentinels that stand gaurd around the hotel tower. The 73 floor inner tower would be quite nice if it wasnt obscured from view and walled off from the water front and downtown. Perhaps, and this would be drastic, the 39 story office towers that ensconce the hotel could be removed, therefore opening the area up for better development. Picture different buildings of various heights and styles complementing the Ren Center hotel. Either way, Its a tough pill to swallow, even if it is sugar coated.

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The grand opening of the new entrance was a couple of hours ago. There was a whole beehive of activity out front when I walked by there on Wednesday. I think the sidewalk in front of the building was technically closed, but I walked on it anyway. LOL.

I'm just glad that the berms are gone. The new entrance looks quite nice. For the first time, the Renaissance Center is an acceptable building. GM has taken an architectural attrocity and made it bearable. The inside of the complex was extremely confusing before. The inside is still a bit confusing, and there is a lot of wasted space, but it is better than it was.

Also, the complex is now accessible from the Riverfront. So the fortress has become less fortress-like. I am very happy that GM purchased the building. It was a steal for them - $73 Million, plus the $500+ Million they put into the renovations.

The Atwater Street side of the Renaissance Center

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The riverfront entrance

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The riverwalk

IMG_5099.jpg

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I've always wondered what type of building they could have built for $573 million.... How much would it have cost to start over and do it right? Not that I am saying they should have torn it down, I'm just trying to figure out what type of building that kind of money could have built. $500 million in renvovations?!?!? I'm trying to remember what the cost was on the compuware, and $35 million is the number the comes to mind.

I'm really happy with not only what GM has done for this complex, but also for downtown. I'm looking forward to finally being able to walking in the front of the building. The elevated walkway entrance places you in a obscure hallway in the complex.

I don't really recall any comments by Portmas about the Ren Cen. I know he considers the project a failure, but I don't remember any comments on his part. So I was a little surprised hearing about Portman saying the problems are a result of changes to his original design. Now I know there are always money problems and the full designs are typically never achieved, but we're talking about an architectural diaster here and that I still believe has a lot to do with Portman's design, or lack there of.

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Compuware was more like $300 Million (I can't seem to think of the clear price either), but I know what you mean about GM spending so much on renovations. I think their choice might have had to do with the complex being Detroit's most recognizable landmark.

I wish they could've narrowed Jefferson Ave. in the process :)

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Well at least we can say that this is a step in the right direction. Although I guess we've gone back several steps with the decision to demolish the statler, but GM truly turned this towering troll into something that I really like. By the way, I can't seem to remember when they put there sign up. I think it was in late 2002 but I'm not sure. That sign really helped the ren cen look much better. Anyway, now that this is done, the city should get moving on the Book-Cadillac, the David Whitney, the Broderick Tower, the David Stott, and well all of the others.

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The Book Cadillac still has a $20 Million funding gap that must be filled before construction can proceed. This is supposed to be provided by a historic tax credit that is supposed to be restored, but that might never happen. Who knows. The city can't do anything with the others, since they are privately owned.

David Stott is slowly undergoing renovations (and has been for a few years). Currently floors 16-32 are the only ones with tenants on them.

The Whitney Building is sitting there doing nothing, although there is a guard. It is owned by a company with little experience in proerty management. They were planning a hotel, but they just don't have the money. Unlike most downtown building owners, they have done a little work to keep the building sealed and maintained.

Broderick Tower...who knows about that one. The owner purchased the building for $54,000 and has no money at all. Supposedly Hines, Inc. out of Houston was trying to purchase the building, and offers have been presented on both sides, but who knows if anything will ever happen.

Lafayette Building announcement is supposedly coming soon.

600 Woodward will be redeveloped by the Garrison Company, the same people who are doing the Carlton Hotel in Brush Park and who will be redoing the Hotel Eddystone in the near future.

Lafer, & Metropolitan Building renovations will begin pending financial closing. It typically takes years to get all the different sources of funding straight, so those two are still up in the air. The RFPs for the Lafer were issued in 2001. Four years later, development might begin. Rumor has it that they may start as early as next month.

Park Avenue Building has been owned by a slumlord for the past 8 years or so. I think it is only logical for the Kales developers to look there next, although he will probably sell only for a ridiculous price.

Ramada Plaza Hotel is the only property that Higgins owns that is occupied by anything other than pigeons, bums, or vandals. It is in very poor shape, but is sort of renovated. Higgins actually has his offices there, and I feel like going there to give him a piece of my mind. Haha.

Book Building will be converted into lofts someday. Construction was supposed to start this year, but I would be shocked if it actually did, since the project was not announced until last year.

That's about it for my mini downtown update. Detroit is taking baby steps, although it is still taking some steps backwards.

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I can't believe the Broderick was sold for $56,000! If I could, I would've bought it and just renovated maybe the first and second floors (and the maybe the roof if I could afford to maintain the elevator) and moved in, myself. And GM would be paying my property tax and part of my mortgage payments with its advertising. :P

Seriously, I can't believe it has been that long since GM bought the RenCen (1996? Is that accurate?). If when I first read that GM was buying and moving into the RenCen they also said it would take 9 years for renovations to complete, I would have probably lost interest after reading that sentence. But now, everything's mostly finished and I doubt anyone can deny that the current RenCen is much better than it was a decade ago. And beyond that I think downtown as a whole would be worse off if GM hadn't decided to reinvest in its city. With their big announcement several years ago they were the snowball that will (hopefully) become an avalanche of development and reinvestment in Detroit's core.

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Though the RenCen was designed as a walled-off fortress, these improvements are breaking that idea down and that's excellent to see. The towers' charm is starting to break through. I can't wait to see the riverfront promenade during the summer when everything's in bloom. Now if we could only see some development that will raise the density between the old CBD and the RenCen...it won't be so detatched.

And dnast is right--who can believe the Broderick was sold for $54,000? If developed properly, who knows what kind of astronomical return on that investment it would be?

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Sadly, it is true that Higgins purchased the Broderick for just $54,000. The building does have one working elevator, but that's about it as far as amenities go. A lot has happened recently. Perhaps most recently, a group of idiots planned to string roughly 15,000 Christmas lights around the top of the tower, lighting it up as a beacon in the sky, just as it was in the 1920s. They ran wire from an outlet on the sixth floor up to the penthouse. Then they hauled up all the lights. Unfortunately for them, the plan didn't work, because they only had about 10 amps of power. As a last ditch attempt, they confronted the bar manager to ask him for help in getting it to work! It would have been cool to see it all lit up, but anyone with half a brain would know that there's no way that would have worked. Additionally, there have been many thefts recently. First the employees' personal artwork was stolen. More recently, they have been stealing alcohol. The manager paid to have an opening into the building sealed up with concrete blocks to keep out intruders. However, some idiots came along with a sledge hammer and destroyed the wall, and there is now no money to brick it back up. Mike Higgins recently settled with a woman who was injured by falling glass from the building. Vandals pushed out windows in the building, badly injuring the woman. She went into the bar all bloody! Higgins was also fined for the windows. He is not doing well financially.

Unfortunately, the bar is probably going to close. It was open today; it might be open tomorrow. That is probably the last time it will be open though. It is a shame too, because they had plans to rip out the dropped ceiling and to restore the original mezzanine. The bar manager would let you sign a waiver so that you could explore the upper floors. I wish I had known that sooner! I tried calling 20 times, since I did not want to drive all the way to Detroit, only to find that the building was closed. However, the phone was disconnected. The bar phone was shut off when Higgins' accountant drained the account, and the phone company went to collect and there was no money, so they cut off service. It looks like the vandals will have free reign of the building after this week though. Look for it to really go downhill. :( Right now it is in fairly good shape. However, the lack of maintenance is taking its toll. I've heard that there is now standing water in some of the corridors in the middle of the building. That means water is getting in, and water is enemy number one for any building.

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And the renaissance continues....

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Shown is an artist rendering of a new lobby for GM's Renaissance Center which shows a glass wall sculpture. A four-screen movie house is also planned for the RenCen.

GM to open theater at RenCen HQ

The multiscreen complex will be only the second to operate within the city.

By R.J. King / The Detroit News

DETROIT -- General Motors Corp. is bringing Hollywood films back to its Renaissance Center world headquarters, making it the only cinema in downtown Detroit.

This week, GM is scheduled to announce a deal to operate a dormant four-screen movie house in the RenCen, offering cushy armchairs, digital sound and large screens. When it opens later this year, the cinema will be only the second movie theater operating in the city, joining the 10-screen Phoenix Theatres Bel-Air Centre along Eight Mile Road east of Van Dyke.

"There's no question we need more cinemas in Detroit, but having Hollywood films will help all of the restaurants at the RenCen," said Frank Taylor, co-owner of Seldom Blues, a jazz supper club at the RenCen he opened last year with former Detroit Lions star Robert Porcher and musician Alexander Zonjic. "The more dining and entertainment you can offer in Detroit, the better."

Cinema operators bypassed Detroit in recent years because of the city's declining population, limited dining options and difficulty finding available land. But since 2000, downtown Detroit has added more than two dozen restaurants, Comerica Park, Ford Field, three casinos and other entertainment offerings.

"We're making downtown Detroit an entertainment hub to complement our growing residential loft development and office projects," said George W. Jackson Jr., president and CEO of Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a nonprofit development agency. "We're also looking at adding other movie theaters."

GM closed the RenCen movie complex in the late 1990s to help make way for the $500 million renovation of the office, hotel and retail complex.

The automaker said it will select from one of two bidders to operate the theater. The suitors are Phoenix Theatres, which also operates the nine-screen West River Centre in Farmington Hills, and American Family Cinema, which runs a three-screen facility at the Livonia Mall along with drive-in theaters at the Pontiac Silverdome and Compuware Arena in Plymouth Township.

"In addition to the theaters, we're adding a glass sculpture inside our main lobby along with three retailers," said Matt Cullen, general manager of GM's economic development and enterprise services group. Branmar Furs, Scentsations and BonBon's will join more than 40 stores and restaurants at the RenCen.

You can reach R.J. King at (313) 222-2504 or [email protected]

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$54,000.00 FOR AN OFFICE TOWER! If that's what things are selling for around there, maybe I need to start looking for some property there. Anyway, the theater at GM sounds pretty good. Theaters are one of the best night destination anchors to have in downtown. I think, I'll go see a movie there when I come up in August.

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Does anyone have any old pics of the RenCen? I'd like to see what it used to look like, with all those concrete walls and such. The renovations look quite nice, although I wish they'd change the glass on the towers. It's like old outdated mirror-type glass, and IMO it looks kinda depressing.

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$54,000.00 FOR AN OFFICE TOWER!  If that's what things are selling for around there, maybe I need to start looking for some property there. 

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Yep. The tower is almost 200,000 square feet too. I think my parents got ripped off when they bought their house, lol.

UrbanLegend -

I will look for some old photos. I do not have any from my personal collection, unfortunately. The glass does scream 70s. I'm sure they will re-skin the tower eventually, but it seems like it is staying for the time being.

When I am downtown later this week I will be sure to get some photos of the new entrance.

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Only one other theater in Detroit?!? And it's on the city's border?!?! Holy crap!

It'll be great to have movies showing downtown again. Where were/will the theaters be in the Ren Cen? I've been in there many times, but can't think were there is enough space for a 4 screen theater.

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Yep. People prefer to see movies at suburban crapola multiplexes, not grand old movie palaces. Until recently, there were one or two small two screen movie theaters, but they closed.

I can't think of where the movie theater would go either, but I'm not very familiar with the complex. I avoided it for a long time because it was so inconvenient to get to. At least now you don't have to enter from the Millender Center skywalk.

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Look, no more ugly concrete berms! I have some close ups of the entrance, but I have about 150 more photos to go through.

IMG_5378.jpg

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Here is the best old photo I could find. It's not very good, but you can at least see the ugly berms that walled off the fortress from Jefferson Avenue.

michi1.jpg

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