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Questions Answered: Historic Buildings Expert Dan Austin

Last week, we brought you two-time author and HistoricDetroit.org founder Dan Austin, expert on all things pertaining to Detroit's historic buildings. Here now, the answers to some intriguing questions on the future of the city's irreplaceable buildings.

1. If you could advise Dan Gilbert on what his next moves would be, what would you suggest? I may or may not be Dan Gilbert.
Dear Dan Gilbert or not Dan Gilbert. My advice: Save some buildings for the rest of us! It's hard to find fault in what he's doing. He's buying historic properties in the heart of downtown in one of the country's largest cities. And he's buying cheap. He's also looking at building on empty lots in prime locations. It would have been nice to see his Z-shaped parking garage/retail development go on the site of the Statler Hotel on Grand Circus Park.

(continued from question one)
That demolition – and the empty, overgrown expanse that it has remained the past eight years – is an embarrassment. But with its proximity to the stadia and the residential redevelopments of the Broderick Tower and Kales, Fyfe and David Whitney buildings along the park, you could fill a hole in our urban fabric while making a killing on parking revenues. I'd also advise him to look into the rehabilitation of historic properties. So far, he has been buying buildings that weren't abandoned because, well, they're easier and cheaper with all the work done for you. But what Detroit really needs is for some of these endangered, abandoned-yet-beautiful buildings to be saved.

2. What neighborhood or part of Detroit is the most overlooked when considering its historic value?

Phew. Tough to narrow it down to just one. I'd say Southwest Detroit doesn't get as much love as it should for its architecture, especially its residential. Hubbard Farms has some ridiculously beautiful homes, and maybe I'm biased because I used to live there, but I think that area is the natural next "it" spot. Speaking of "it" spots, West Village already has that distinction, and it's clear why. Indian Village is no secret, but there are some gorgeous homes and commercial structures right next door.

3. What buildings (especially outside MidCorkDown) would you most love to see restored and why?

Depends. If money and location weren't an issue? The Vanity Ballroom and Cooley High School. The Lee Plaza, maybe. But again, that's if we're ignoring the issues of money and location. No one is going to sink $150 million into reviving the Lee Plaza when it's not in an area that allows for charging the high rents/sale prices that such a redevelopment would require. I think you're seeing most of these redevelopments happening in Midtown, Corktown and Downtown because, well, that's where they can charge the rents/sale prices that make such a redevelopment possible. Depending on your definition of "Downtown," I'd say the University Club on East Jefferson would be another one.


4. What will happen to the Eddystone Hotel when the new Red Wings arena is built? Will it be knocked down or be part of the development?

My guess is that it will be razed, much like the historic YMCA, Hotel Wolverine, YWCA and Deroit College of Law were demolished to make way for Comerica Park. An example of hope here is Ford Field, which saved part of an old Hudson's warehouse and incorporated it into the building. Incorporating the Eddystone and Park Avenue hotels into a new arena would be an outstanding gesture by the Ilitch family. They could be made into outstanding residences connected to the arena. What Red Wings fan WOULDN'T want to live next to the arena? And there is precedence for it: The Columbus Blue Jackets' arena has residential and commercial space adjoined to the stadium. With the demand for rentals Downtown at an insane high right now, why WOULDN'T you want to save these historic buildings? They are also on the National Register of Historic Places, so they qualify for tax credits, though there would be restrictions on what you could do to them. You likely wouldn't be able to get away with bathing them in crazy, seizure-inducing neon lights, for example. Sadly, the Ilitch family is not known for its historic renovation/rehabilitation projects outside of the Fox Theatre, and that was 25 years ago. The United Artists Theatre and the Detroit Life Building are among the family's properties that have sat rotting for years – but at least they have done better than the family's since-razed Madison-Lenox Hotel and Fine Arts Building. If the public lets the family know that they want to see the Eddystone and Park Avenue saved, maybe it will bow to public opinion and try to incorporate them, or at least sell them to someone who will?

5. As there's such a demand for housing Downtown, which of the larger abandoned buildings there would make the best residential conversions?

According to many developers, the biggest thing stopping the redevelopment of many of these structures Downtown is the lack of dedicated parking for them. In a city that loves its automobiles and where public transit is still lacking (though will soon get a boost from the M1 Rail), you need to have a place for residents to park. If you were to, say, build some parking garages on surface-level parking lots and the parking shortage were not an issue, my answers would be the Metropolitan and Wurlitzer buildings and what was most recently known as Harvard Square Center. These three buildings have got everything you're looking for: beautiful, historic architecture; walking distance to downtown offices; and nearby amenities, such as the Detroit Opera House, Boll YMCA and great restaurants. Plus, all three would qualify for historic tax credits that would make such renovations more attractive to investors. The Free Press Building would be another, though that it is a MUCH larger building and would likely need business tenants as well to make it happen.

6. What practical things can people do to keep more of our awesome historic buildings from being torn down to make parking lots?

Get involved. Join groups like Preservation Detroit. Follow the Detroit Historic Commission on Facebook and attend its meetings. Write your council members and George Jackson of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., or owners of empty buildings. Let these people know that you care and that you want to see these places saved. And of course, you should follow HistoricDetroit.org on Facebook to stay informed on such matters. (Shameless plug.)
When the Free Press reported that Triple Properties was looking at tearing down the historic State Savings Bank (aka Savoyard Centre) for parking, the community uproar made him change his mind. Many times, it's the silence that allows these buildings to disappear. Granted, when you look at the outcry over the Lafayette Building and Tiger Stadium, making your voice heard in this town doesn't necessarily mean that anyone is listening