When it comes to planning our city, we had hoped developers might have learned a lesson after the demolition spree of the last few decades, where building after building was torn down for surface parking lots.
After all, Dan Gilbert (and a host of other developers, large and small) have clearly shown that people want to be part of re-using historic structures, whether for locating their office there or making the place their new home.
It seems that message hasn’t made it to the offices of the Ilitch family, which has been around plenty long enough and should have figured it out by now.
This is raised again as there is the real prospect of the demolition of some of the few historic buildings we have left in the core of the city.
Two of the properties are an old car dealership at Charlotte and Woodward and an apartment building on Peterboro.
Across the street from the Peterboro property, a new food court in shipping containers is going in as well as there are signs of retail and restaurant life on nearby Cass.
On Woodward, the old car dealership is among the last buildings of older architecture before you get to Little Caesars Arena.
Let’s set aside any political disagreements you may or may not have with the organizations, and focus on culture. Gilbert’s crew and the Ilitch organization found success in different ways.
Bedrock’s real estate arm prides itself on trying to create unique experiences. Quicken Loans, the engine of the money to pay for all of their projects, is now the largest mortgage lender in the country. To get people to spend thousands and thousands of dollars in the very personal transaction of buying a home, you have to build some sort of trust. They publicly talk about their “isms.”
The Ilitch family, on the other hand, has basically the same core product across the world. It’s a franchise organization that prides itself on a product that costs just $5. They’ve built their fortune occupying strip malls across the country where, for the business to make it, everything has to be the same and parking has to be plentiful. Nothing can cost too much as the margins are razor thin.
When it comes to development, it’s time for a culture change at the Ilitch organization. There have been some notable exceptions, but it feels like the default there is to demolish it. To create the lowest-cost development with the highest return, just like the business model for their pizza.
What Olympia Development has done and continues to do in the lively heart of the city is akin to eating a high-cholesterol diet without exercise: Take the high profits from a parking lot with the lowest taxable value, then do almost nothing to the property.
For too long we’ve defined progress in downtown Detroit through a narrow focus on sporting events and concerts instead of creating 24-7 vibrant neighborhoods with amenities that draw residents and visitors.
But since the conversation online is dominated by people who don’t live in the city, there’s this belief that everything’s fine. That we should be thankful for whatever we get and not ask questions.
You can be appreciative of investment but also fight for your community. That’s part of the natural give and take that makes for a better project in the end.
Back to our old car dealership and apartment building.
Take a look at the Woodstock Apartments. It’s the kind of place where people in other cities would love to live. We showed you pictures from today. Here’s a picture from their heyday. This can be again. Who wouldn’t want to live there?
And this former dealership at Woodward and Charlotte is gorgeous. We hope we can meet there for a drink one day.
Sure, we love old buildings. They’re worth saving for a lot of reasons. But we get business is business, so we’ll make another argument.
It’s sad for the entire community the Ilitches clearly don’t see the potential in what they already own.
Their actions make it seem like the organization, even under newer, younger leadership, doesn’t yet get why Detroit is cool to the nation again.
The “energy” of the city isn’t fueled by ample parking on vast surface lots. That’s what people are moving away from.
What makes a city like ours magical, in part, are the connections. Connections to each other. Connections to our work. Connections to our friends. And connections to our past.
Treating Detroit as a community and not just as a playground for visitors can and should be done. We don’t have to let the mistakes of the past define our future. The money is there. All it takes is will and vision — and maybe a little public pressure.
If an older building is limited in size or scope, maybe you incorporate new and old. You only have to look at the plans for the Soap Stone building on Detroit’s riverfront to get an idea.
If you’re passionate about this topic, there’s a protest happening tomorrow (Saturday) at 2 p.m. The information is here.
Detroit’s future is still in flux, but could be very bright. As residents, let’s demand the sun come out.