Detroit To Tear Down 14 Schools
By Margaret Foster | Online Only | Dec. 17, 2009
Cass Technical High School, the Detroit school attended by Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin, and automaker John DeLorean, is slated for demolition. Earlier this month, Detroit Public Schools announced that it would begin tearing down 14 vacant schools, including Cass Tech, which has been empty since 2005. To pay for the demolitions, the school system says it will use about $33 million from bond programs approved by voters in 1994 and again in November.
"Vacant schools across Detroit have been blights on the community and safety hazards for far too long," said Robert C. Bobb, Detroit Public Schools' emergency financial manager, in a Dec. 7 statement. "Thanks to the taxpayers of Detroit … we can now move forward with substantially changing the landscape of the city and remove these long-standing eyesores."
Locals were not surprised to see 1922 Cass Tech on the list, considering that Detroit Public Schools has not adequately protected the building from vandals; it caught fire in 2007 and has been stripped of its copper.
"I think the decision was made about this building quite some time ago," says Karen Nagher, executive director of Preservation Wayne. "This is definitely a demolition by neglect. In the last 18 to 24 months, the deterioration and the break-ins have accelerated. The building is not secured. All the windows are open now—to people and the elements."
But Detroit Public Schools faces a potential hurdle: Earlier this year, 93 public schools in Detroit were designated eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, including Cass Tech and four others on the list of doomed schools.
Officials will have to tread carefully to avoid any federal involvement in certain demolitions, says Debra Goldstein of the Detroit City Council's Historic Designation Advisory Board, which is preparing the National Register nomination for a meeting in May. (If federal money will be used to demolish a building eligible for the list, a Section 106 evaluation and review process is required first.)
"We're trying to figure out here what kind of money is being spent on the demolition," Goldstein says. "There are a lot of questions."
Nagher suggests that the 831,000-square-foot building be converted to senior housing. An alumni group has contracted a developer to renovate the building as lofts, shops, offices, and theater space.
"You've got to spend $6 million to destroy it, and you're going to be left with a property that in this economy is not going to be very attractive," says Ray Litt, chairman of the 8,000-member Cass Tech Alumni Association. Litt's group says Detroit Public Schools' cost estimates for renovating Cass Tech are inflated. "They were hell-bent to not use the old building and build a new one."
Cass Tech, founded in the 1860s, still exists in a new building nearby.
"Cass Tech was an icon for the Detroit community. It was an alternative school before there were alternative schools," says Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan State Historic Preservation Network, whose father-in-law, now 83, attended Cass Tech. "It was the school that truly saved his life because he was going nowhere. …. This school has been so significant for the entire city, [but] the city of Detroit doesn't take very good care of its buildings."
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