Maybe This Time
Pressure Mounts to Save Detroit's Michigan Central Station
By Arnold Berke | Online Only | Oct. 19, 2009
Can Detroit stand another heartbreaker? After years of losing landmarks, the city is once again trying to rescue the crumbling railroad depot known as Michigan Central Station, closed for 21 years. What if it fails?
Reuse schemes for the structure have come and gone for decades—and the roller-coaster ride continues. The city council voted in April to raze the station, but a month later, State Sen. Cameron Brown (R) proposed saving it for homeland security and other government operations. The solution hinges on the owner, a private transportation company called the Detroit International Bridge Co., that has held the building for years.
"This is the best effort yet," says Brown, "a convergence of interest from transportation to preservation, the owner, the state, and locals." But who would pay for such a rehabilitation? "We're not talking about public money," he says, "but about the owner launching restoration if it has assurance of an anchor tenant."
Michigan Central Station opened in 1913, designed by the two firms that created New York City's Grand Central Terminal—Warren and Wetmore, and Reed and Stem. Their Detroit depot incongruously combines a grand, Beaux Arts head house with an 18-story office tower. Inside, a Roman waiting room made visitors' entry to the city, from trains like the Detroiter or Mercury, an elegant rite.
As cars and planes replaced trains, however, decay set in. Amtrak took over Michigan Central in 1971, but left in 1988. The station has been empty ever since. International Bridge bought it in 1996, and the deterioration continued.
"Everybody knows the company has continued to neglect it," says State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D), whose district includes the depot. "Our dream has always been to fully restore this beautiful place."
Mickey Blashfield, director of governmental relations at International Bridge, defends the company's maintenance record: "When we acquired it, pretty much everything of value had already walked away. … It's very difficult to secure, but we do our best, especially compared to other abandoned structures in the region."
Its location away from downtown, combined with the loss of adjacent buildings, isolates Michigan Central, which rises like a tombstone from an urban meadow. Today, the depot stands vandalized and open to the elements, stripped of nearly everything of decorative or intrinsic value—marble flooring to copper wiring. The ruin has endeared itself to Hollywood as a set for end-of-time films like Transformers, and to the media as a handy symbol of the fall of Detroit.
"Some people want it down," says Karen Nagher, executive director of Preservation Wayne. "It just makes them sad."
Eyesore or not, Michigan Central can be an asset to the neighborhood, says Timothy McKay, executive director of Greater Corktown Development Corp., which builds affordable housing in the area nearby. "Demolition is not an option," he says. "Be a responsible owner, and if you can't, sell it at a responsible price so somebody else can reuse it."
Many have tried to revive the station. Since the late 1980s, plans for a world trade center, casino, convention center, housing, shops, and/or transportation museum have all fizzled—even a city scheme to move police headquarters there (too pricey). Preservation groups have kept the question on their radar. "Over the last however many years, there have been innumerable small, unstaffed, heartfelt efforts," says Kathleen Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association.
Despite the city council's Apr. 7 vote to raze Michigan Central using federal stimulus funds, the building isn't in immediate danger. The city can't afford demolition, and the station is on the National Register, making federally funded demolition unlikely. The vote, however, "was a catalyst for my involvement," says Senator Brown, who sent the bridge company a new plan. The proximity of roads, rails, and the Canadian border, he says, makes the property ideal for federal and regional homeland security offices, a Michigan State Police forensic lab, and an international trade processing center.
"Certainly Senator Brown's suggestions of the civic uses for the building as an anchor make sense," Blashfield says. "Every other station has been renovated with significant public investment." But more tenants are needed to reach "critical mass," he says, so the company is "continuing to entertain options." He sees the station boosting Corktown's rebirth, "providing a magnet for other development, particularly if we can find a use that brings people into the building in addition to those who would work there."
Tlaib hopes International Bridge can find a way. "The public doesn't want to support taxpayer dollars to fix the building," she says. "This is a billion-dollar company that could do it tomorrow."
Meanwhile, Greater Corktown Development plans to rehab the 1923 Roosevelt Hotel, near the station, for housing. Activist John Mohyi, who founded savemichigancentral.com after the council vote, persuaded the owner to allow volunteers access to the building for a clean-up. This year Facebook and Flickr have been flooded with comments and photos. Even sixth-graders got involved. In July, Earhart Middle School students and Preservation Wayne brainstormed reuse ideas—from a hospital to a nightclub—and presented them to the city council. "They're so in love with that station," says Nagher.
"I'm a bit more optimistic," McKay says. "It appears potential uses are coming to the table because of the state, and what city council did. I think, yes, we have a chance."
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