Once full of treasure and later full of radiation, few buildings have been to Hell and back like the Metropolitan. Few that are still standing, at least. These days, despite being structurally sound, the Metropolitan may as well have a large target painted on its neo-gothic facade. The master plan for Downtown cooked up by Dan Gilbert/Bedrock aims to demolish the Metropolitan Building this year, making way for an "engaging public space" with "things to do."
While we're not against public spaces, there are already plans for enhancing the historic parks already in place—Capitol, Grand Circus, Harmonie, Campus Martius—while turning Cadillac Square into sort of a market space. It's hard not to be excited about those upgrades, but Downtown can only support so many carousels, fountains, and outdoor movie screenings. At something like 98% occupancy, what Downtown needs is residential space, and therefore buildings to hold those new residents. With the right investment, the Metropolitan fits the bill.
It would seem that renovating the Metropolitan—to steal the slogan of the placemaking theme— would be a "lighter, quicker, cheaper" way to increase the value of Bedrock's Woodward Avenue properties, all while avoiding the heavy, slow, and expensive process of demolition. Historic Detroit tells us its bones are solid, but the building is basically a cement shell. That's to be expected of anything that's sat vacant in Detroit since 1979. The Metropolitan's ornate facade reflects its original purpose as Detroit's jewelry hub, containing stores and manufacturing. Unfortunately, a combination of political favoritism and the radioactive byproducts of jewelry manufacturing have staved off several attempts at redevelopment. The state cleaned up the Metropolitan's irradiated bits in 1997 (as in, completely gutted the interior), but still it sits.
Even if the Metropolitan were to be demolished, the brick-dropping Wurlitzer Building next door would make the resulting public space more concussing than engaging. That would need to be addressed, and if we're taking the easy route with the Metropolitan, what's to say the Wurlitzer wouldn't be torn down, too?
While the plan calls for demolition, there was an added twist in a story by The Guardian earlier this week, which quotes Bedrock's Bruce Schwartz as he muses potential plans for Detroit.
We walk past the abandoned Metropolitan Building on John R Street, a potentially magnificent 15 story gothic revival building finished in 1925 abandoned for decades and covered in graffiti. "The city will give us that," says Schwartz. "We could knock out the bottom floors, open them up to the alleys behind, put in some bars, some seating. We could build lofts, office space." How many other major cities allow such flexible city planning? Is Bedrock having second thoughts? Or was that just Schwartz giving an example of things they could do, should they desire? Either way, it sounds like the Metropolitan's fate is in the hands of Dan Gilbert. Let's hope he opts for preservation.
· The Story of the Metropolitan Building [Historic Detroit]
· Gallery of the Metropolitan [Detroit Urbex]
· Detroit's Precarious Recovery [The Guardian]