The Growing Resurgence of Downtown Detroit
Downtown Detroit’s Renaissance: Developers and Nonprofits Work Together to Restore Michigan’s Largest City
Once a thriving industrial center, Detroit fell on hard times after World War II, but the city is experiencing a resurgence, as developers invest in historic structures, some which sat vacant for decades.
“Detroit was a wealthy city, and the buildings are one of a kind and world renowned. That is a huge part of what is drawing people back,” says Eric Kehoe, President of the nonprofit Preservation Detroit’s Board of Directors.
Kehoe explains that people are looking for ways to differentiate their businesses. Detroit fits that need. Additionally, he says, Millennials and empty nesters want to live in walkable neighborhoods with amenities.
“That’s what Detroit offers,” Kehoe says. “A lot of savvy folks are seeing the investment opportunities to rehab these buildings, and it is paying off.”
However, that was not always the case. Tony Sabo, Senior Vice President of Grunwell-Cashero, a third-generation, family-owned masonry business in Detroit, remembers when banks would not loan money for Detroit projects, but now they do.
“It’s a great time to be in Detroit,” Sabo says.
In many ways, Detroit was fortunate in that for years, owners did not have the money to tear down the abandoned buildings, and there was no demand for the buildings or empty lots, explains Ron Staley, Senior Vice President of The Christman Co. of Detroit, which specializes in historic restorations. Now, there are visionary developers making the restorations happen.
“There are still historic buildings around town,” Staley says. “We have great landmarks that are salvageable.”
Even before the resurgence of Detroit the city enjoyed a vitality, adds Brian Rebain, a Principal at Kraemer Design Group in Detroit.
“When people started to recognize the value of cities, these great bones were there,” Rebain says. “There was an amazing potential to renovate and reoccupy them.”
Angela Wyrembelski, an Architect with Quinn Evans Architects’ Detroit office, added that people are impressed with the beauty and overall quality of Detroit’s buildings
“When you find a gem, it helps in understanding the history and life of the city,” Wyrembelski says.
Michigan Central Station
Ford Motor Co., Detroit, purchased the iconic Michigan Central Station – built in 1913 and shuttered by Amtrak in 1988 – and will restore the 600,000-square-foot train station to its former glory. The company hired Quinn Evans Architects to lead the design team, and a joint venture of Christman and Brinker Group, of Detroit, to head up the construction.
Currently, the project is in the design phase. Contractors with Christman/Brinker are ensuring the building is watertight and dries out.
“We are trying to get the windows covered and a roof, so we do not have waterfalls in the building,” Wyrembelskisays. Interior work is expected to commence in 2020.
“It’s an amazing and beautiful building,” Wyembelski says. “The main waiting room has ceilings 55-foot high. It has three domed vaults. You do not build that anymore. The grandeur is breathtaking even in its current form of decay.”
The Metropolitan Building
After standing vacant for more than 40 years, the 14-story Metropolitan Building recently reopened as the Element Detroit at the Metropolitan, an extended-stay lodging with 110 rooms. The wedge-shaped, neo-Gothic structure – built in 1925 – originally housed jewelry showrooms, artists’ studios, dress stores, and other businesses, and required extensive renovations. A 10-foot tree was growing on the roof, and many people thought the building would be demolished.
The restoration and rebirth of this building, said David Di Rita, Co-Founder and Principal of The Roxbury Group of Detroit, one of the developers, along with the Means Group, also of Detroit, in a statement, “is a testament to the resilient spirit of Detroit.”
“It is a pie-shaped building,” says Benjamin Telian, Project Architect for Quinn Evans Architects, explaining that at the rear the building on the first two floors is about 9 feet wide. “It is a unique geometry in the city.”
The restoration team preserved as many original details as possible, including a vaulted ceiling in the lobby, decorative staircases and terrazzo flooring. Some of the original jewelry storefronts were restored in the second floor meeting rooms.
During the years, concrete slabs had deteriorated, and brick and terra cotta had started falling off the structure.
“Being left unoccupied for all of those years, there was no more roof; it was down to the bare concrete,” Sabo says. About 25,000 bricks and terra cotta pieces fell to the ground.
Grunwell-Cashero was able to save some bricks and found the original manufacturer, which still made the brick, so new bricks could be incorporated.
The building has all new electrical, plumbing, mechanical, and fire protection systems. The owners decided to add a staircase in the building rather than replace the exterior fire escape Telian explains.
Bringing the elevators up to current code required replacing the four original elevators with two larger elevators. The extra space in the elevator shafts was used to for laundry and trash shoots and mechanical and electrical chase space.
Guest rooms occupy floors three through 12. Floors 13 and 14 have become a rooftop bar.
The Old Wayne County Building
The 225,000-square-foot Old Wayne County Building, built in 1897 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has received a $7 million exterior renovation. County government left the building in 2009, and it has remained vacant. 600 Randolph SN LLC, an investment group in New York purchased the property in 2014.
“It’s a magnificent building,” Staley says. “There is a high level of detail inside, and the owners have taken care to preserve it.”
The work included copper roofing, masonry, windows, new boilers, and removing some non-original walls added in subsequent years, Staley says.
“They were mostly trying to get the building watertight,” Wyrembelski says.
Large courtrooms are in the middle, with a grand 10-foot-wide corridor with additional rooms. It features plaster details, wood millwork, and terrazzo floors.
The Farwell Building
Built in 1915 and vacant since 1984, the Farwell Building, with offices predominantly for law firms, is being redeveloped into an apartment building with 82 units, with retail and restaurant space on the ground floor, and offices on the second floor. Louis Comfort Tiffany designed prominent aspects of the interior, including a glass mosaic-tile dome over a rotunda, decorative iron work at the front door and elevators, and the glass ceiling. The eight-story building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“We are restoring some highly significant historic components of the building, including a six-story atrium in the center of the building,” Rebain says. “I think the building will be a huge success.”
Much of the iron work was gone when the restoration started. However, the decorative elevator fronts on the upper floors were still in place. Rebain reports plans to recreate the first floor elevator grates. Kraemer Design Group was able to access the original building plans and used those plans to recreate some of the wall decorations and metal work. Cornices were replaced with fiberglass moldings.
The Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse, an Art Deco-Art Moderne structure built in 1934, continues to house 26 federal courtrooms. Christman completed a restoration of the decorative walls and replaced elevators while legal cases moved forward.
“It was like doing heart surgery while keeping the patient alive,” Staley says.
Grunwell-Cashero is working on the restoration of the Fox Theater and nearby store fronts and the renovation of the National Theater’s facade, which has two terra cotta towers with an entrance in the middle. That will be relocated into a new recreation space.
Henry Ford’s home in Dearborn, Michigan, has been restored by Christman, which replaced tiles, replicated millwork and windows, repaired the roof and is currently updating the electrical system.
“There is so much craftsmanship in the house,” Staley adds.
Christman converted a 250,000-square-foot Mother House in Monroe, Michigan, into rental apartments, while preserving the history of the building.
In addition to these projects, several are more jobs are in the works. The 14-story Lee Plaza, vacant since 1997 and on the National Register of Historic Places, is another Roxbury project and will offer half of its 180 units as affordable housing. Kehoe says this is one of the last high-rise buildings available for rehabilitation.
Detroit’s riverfront presents another opportunity for redevelopment. Historically, it has had concrete silos, but now $50 million is headed toward redeveloping the area. The Detroit RiverFront Conservancy has hired Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of Brooklyn, New York, to design the West Riverfront.
Quinn Evans Architects also is working on a project to preserve Belle Isle, an island park in the Detroit River.
“Rehabbing historic buildings is a great investment,” Kehoe says. “Over the long run, it just makes sense economically.”