You've probably seen them: The Beaux Arts influenced towers too beautiful to have once been banks and office buildings, the once-abandoned warehouses and commercial venues that now host ground-rattling parties for the hipster crowd.
These structures are a part of the most promising story in redevelopment these days, and one that involves a contemporary set of R's: reuse, rehab, redevelop, recycle.
Old is the new new
The notion that older architecture is valuable and that the preservation of historic buildings is important has been growing since the early 1980s, says Frank Arvan, principal architect at FX Architecture in Royal Oak. Area theaters are a longstanding example: What would Liberty Street look like without Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater, or Northville's Main Street without its jewel-box marquee?
But active restoration and building reuse has become increasingly common in the more vital downtowns. Check out the beautiful red-brick structures of Ann Arbor's historic Kerrytown neighborhood, still bustling with independent businesses; or the former Plymouth United Savings Bank, now converted to a kid-friendly café.
"People are very tired of cookie-cutter, brand-new construction," said Blair McGowan, an area developer who recently reopened Pontiac's historic Crofoot building as a multi-use entertainment venue. "We [chose] historic renovation because it's the right thing to do --culturally and architecturally."
McGowan's team also chose historic renovation because of the financial incentives. Built in the 1830s, the Crofoot is one of the oldest buildings in one of Michigan's oldest cities and before its recent trabsformation sat vacant for over a decade.
"We wouldn't have been able to do it if we had a new building because we wouldn't have had the important tax credits that filled the gaps in financing," McGowan says, referring to Michigan's federal historic tax credits that assist historic preservation.
The effort to restore the Crofoot ("It was an eyesore," McGowan confessed) has earned cheers from both appreciative citizens and the state government. The project even merited an award of $100,000 toward its development from the Cool Cities initiative instituted by Governor Jennifer Granholm.
The Crofoot is only the most recent — and well-publicized — examples of a trend that Kristine Kidorf, historic preservation consultant, said is growing increasingly popular nationwide.
"I think people really are appreciating the value of historic preservation more," explains Kidorf, via telephone from the National Preservation Conference in St Paul, MN. "I think developers are realizing both the economic and environmental value."
Choosing to retrofit instead of raze also improves the quality of life of community residents. It adds or stabilizes property values, and establishes a brick-and-mortar connection to the past. "It gives people roots and makes them grounded in their every day life," Kidorf adds.
Side effects may vary
In addition, preservation is more environmentally sound than new construction.
"By definition, there's nothing greener than pre-existing structures," said Francis Grunow, executive director of Preservation Wayne, an organization that advocates exactly what its title says. "There's a whole world if you kind of self reflect on how you live and where you live, reusing our built environment and making it coexist with our natural environment."
The sheer potential of this surge in restoration and renovation has sparked much-needed discussion about rebuilding downtown communities. But just how far can it go? If we're lucky, a real estate rehab boom may lead not just to enhancement of a neighborhood but a total transformation.
One sector that has been prime for use, both in terms of building space and ambition, is Detroit's art community. And the renovation that has gotten most attention from architecture critics is the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The one-time auto showroom has been the subject of a New York Times slideshow and review, as well as phone calls from passerbys concerned with the life-like robot dangling from the museum's façade.
Southwest Detroit has seen art spaces crop up in Corktown next to old-guard galleries like the Zeitgeist (itself a former motorcycle club, according to the bartender). There's Izzy's Raw Art Gallery on Michigan, for example, housed in the first floors of an old department store. New conversion projects, like the Grinnell Place Lofts, have also been built, taking advantage of the many brick warehouses and industrial buildings in the area.
"I think it's a big positive for redevelopment and investment in particular when you have galleries and venues that are catering to an artistic clientele that tries to beautify the community they're in," said Maya Cadwell, curator at Fi-nite Gallery in Detroit, which is housed in a former boiler-room. "Rather than fighting the space we embrace the space … It's really an asset to the gallery that our location is so much a part of the natural environment of Detroit and of Corktown."
Restoration begets restoration
What will be most interesting to see is not where this trend will peak but what happens afterward. A recently returned Detroit native, Cadwell spent the last two years in Chicago, where she said made-over neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Bucktown have experienced a change in resident demographic.
Artist beautification of neglected urban areas inspires investors to open up businesses, which will in turn attract a certain clientele.
"The investment value goes way up," she said. "You almost see a more monied crowd and you often see artists pushed out after [as a result] … It's interesting to see if [we're in] an early stage of a trend like that but we'll see."
Hopefully, Cadwell said, the artists and independents who invest early are going to benefit in the long run.
"Old buildings are great spaces for new ideas," said Grunow, quoting urbanist Jane Jacobs. "Detroit has an incredible opportunity and building stock that can be fairly easily adapted. The problem has been we haven't had the people to fill them and we've lost a lot of them (both people and buildings) so there's a disconnect between districts."
This also drives home why a Wicker Park/Bucktown transformation is unlikely to occur Detroit, at least right now: density. (Though, that's not to say people haven't tried to make it work)
"While in Detroit we have a wonderful arts community, the region, as a whole, hasn't really supported the city and the kind of organic growth SoHo or the Warehouse Distrcit in Chicago experienced," Grunow explains.
Growth in a "dense kind of way" is what developers like McGowan are trying to address. And though they're creating businesses that encourage foot-traffic, their efforts are thwarted by the same mindset that produced sprawl: Commerce areas that are far from residential neighborhoods, the lack of an effective mass transit system and a population has plummeted since the 1960s.
"You see districts in other cities over the last 20-30 year or so really flower in places that have been largely abandoned or not utilized," Grunow said. "It allows for new, different ways for using buildings — that's the one hand. One the other hand we're a bit behind on this trend because we've lost so many people who in many cases go figure this out [elsewhere]."
Detroit's impulse to take down vacant buildings does not help, however.
"That has [been detrimental] to the organic growth effect that can be tapped into," he added. "A lot of places have been unable to tap into their historic fabrics and utilize their natural resources."
Still, the city of Detroit is a great template for growth. Having witnessed the positive and negative results of redevelopment plans in other cities, we have the opportunity to pick and choose which models would work best for us.
"The inner cities need foot traffic and businesses and the governor's team recognized how the Crofoot will add foot traffic to downtown Pontiac," McGowan says. He adds that Pontiac, the county seat, has an inventory of other 19th century landmarks, many of which haven't been developed yet.
So for its ongoing makeover, Detroit may not even need to look as far as Chicago. Consider the championing of the old-fashioned brick and rich wood décor of Slow's Bar BQ in the city's own Southwest, and like-minded vintage tributes like Bastone in Royal Oak and Woodward Avenue Brewery. Take a look at long-maintained neighborhoods like Ypsilanti's Depot Town and Ann Arbor's Kerrytown. From individual buildings and lots, such inspiration for regrowth can extend to parts of a community in ways formerly undreamt of. (Kidorf is currently working with developers to build housing units on the property of the former Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing.)
Redevelopment is happening all over the region, and there's no reason the trend shouldn't continue to spread.
"There a great opportunities for all the old cities that have infrastructure, have charm and the tax incentives that the state and local governments provide for them," said McGowan. "There are all kinds of opportunities in Detroit, in Pontiac and in the old cities both large and small."
Kimberly Chou is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor and frequent contributor to metromode. Her previous article was Michigan Jobs 2.0.
Vinton Building - Detroit
Blair McGowen - developer of Crofoot in Pontiac
Interior - Crofoot
Francis Grunow - Preservation Wayne
Vinton Building - Detroit
Slows BBQ - Corktown (photograph by Peter Schottenfels)
All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni (except as noted)