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A jail at Michigan Central Station is Detroit’s dumbest idea

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An essay from Chad Rochkind

Michelle & Chris Gerard

A couple weeks ago, we posted about the idea that the failed jail location and courts could be moved to an area behind Michigan Central Station, which was brought up in the Detroit News by Nolan Finley. Finley said this in his column:

"I can’t say for sure how serious the idea is. But I heard the same thing from several people last week: Discussions are underway with the county, city of Detroit and Matty Moroun, the billionaire owner of the Central Depot, as well as the rail companies that own part of the site, to replace the partially completed jail on Gratiot in downtown Detroit with a new facility behind Central Depot."

The Detroit Free Press just ran an article discussing the state of the fail jail, as it's seeing its third winter. It goes into the possibility of courts at Michigan Central Station in greater detail.

"The idea was proposed last year, Wayne County Circuit Chief Judge Robert Colombo Jr. told the Free Press. Colombo said he met with Moroun's son, Matthew Moroun, in May 2015 to see whether the Morouns would be willing to donate the property to the county for a new justice center. Colombo then arranged for a meeting between Kaufman and Matthew Moroun.

Kaufman confirmed the meeting, but would not disclose details of what was discussed.

"We met and we discussed ways that the county could be improved," Kaufman said. "It was a free-ranging discussion about ways that potentially we could make county government more efficient.""

Chad Rochkind, Executive Director of Corktown Economic Development Corporation, has written a response to the idea, which we are publishing below with permission from the author, and co-signed by Kathy Wendler, ED of the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

It's hard to know where to begin when critiquing proposals that are bad on pretty much every level. Unfortunately, that's the task at hand after the Detroit News insinuated people at the highest levels were considering that the solution for the Wayne County jail debacle could be to move it to Michigan Central Station. Yesterday the Detroit Free Press confirmed these talks were real.

This plan makes no sense from an urban planning and architectural perspective, an economic development perspective, a public space perspective, a cultural vibrancy perspective, or social justice perspective. It's shocking that a proposal is being considered at the highest levels that is so clearly backwards in its thinking and destructive to the years of efforts by organizations, business owners, and residents on the ground in Corktown and Southwest Detroit.

From an urban planning perspective, a jail and courts at Michigan Central Station would be a tremendous misuse of one of Detroit's most iconic assets. What would it say about our values and our vision for ourselves as a city if this incredible icon was used for such purposes? The idea is a failure of the imagination—one that presumes any development is good development. It is completely insensitive to geographical and historical context. Geographically, Michigan Central Station is visible from many neighborhoods throughout Detroit: Downtown, Brush Park, Midtown, Corktown, North Corktown, Hubbard Farms, Hubbard Richard, Mexicantown, and much of Southwest Detroit. To have a jail loom in the skyline would deeply impact our mental maps of the area, and it would be a symbol to all of these neighborhoods that we value locking people up more than we value active civic life. That is to say nothing of the fact that Michigan Central Station would become an even greater divider between these communities at exactly the time we are striving for greater connection. Historically, Michigan Central Station was the Ellis Island of Detroit—the landing pad of freedom for immigrants from Ireland, Greece, Malta, Italy, and Mexico. A jail and court complex would not only erase this history, but it would tarnish it by replacing freedom with bondage.

From an architectural perspective, the idea would be a complete misuse of one of the most beautiful historic buildings, not only in Detroit, but in the United States as a whole. The Warren & Wetmore and Reed and Stem beaux-arts classic is revered across the globe. To put such use in use a building would make us the laughing stock of the world. Michigan Central Station is the spiritual twin of Grand Central in New York City. It's often forgotten that Grand Central once stood in disrepair, and if not for the spirited efforts of engaged citizens (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis among them) that building would have faced the chopping block. However, it's a fallacy to believe we should redevelop every abandoned building in Detroit for any reason that pops into our head. Michigan Central Station can be an asset in its current state, simply if it is reframed in the public mind. The so-called jail solution is no solution at all. It represents the same failed, top-down, big-box, silver bullet thinking that has plagued this city and this region for decades. If Michigan Central Station must be redeveloped, it need not be developed all at once. Why not open the lobby and place a bar on the roof? Why not look at the example of Memphis' Tennessee Brewery redevelopment that took place through a series of gradual, piecemeal updates that included a biergarten and screening room in a building at the same scale as Michigan Central Station. Too often, we wait for large-scale investment to get anything done in this town, when the reality is we can make life better today by using a lighter, quicker, cheaper approach. That's the proper way to begin to redevelop Michigan Central Station—as a place of gradual becoming, rather than as a place where dreams go to die. We must forge a new relationship with this uniquely Detroit architectural wonder. We can reframe our relationship to the building from blight to beauty, but a jail at the site is the worst of all possible worlds.

From an economic development perspective, both Corktown and Southwest have been stitching together walkable, locally owned business communities that we can be proud of on both sides of Michigan Central Station. These two neighborhoods are experiencing the kind of economic growth that should be replicated throughout Detroit. This idea would effectively halt the progress we have seen in these neighborhoods over the past decade and more. We should be thinking about how our existing assets can be used to anchor our neighborhoods' growth, not stymie it—particularly when the city is just emerging from bankruptcy.

From a public space perspective, Michigan Central Station sits at the foot of Roosevelt Park, which has the potential to be a truly iconic public space, specifically because of it proximity to, and visual relationship with, the classic beaux-arts building. Both Corktown and Southwest have initiated a planning process around the future of the park, one that has various relevant government agencies already at the table. This effort would die if the park was anchored by a jail, and the $3 million that the Detroit Recreation Department has earmarked for improvements in Roosevelt Park would be wasted.

From a cultural vibrancy perspective, do you know who says, "let's hang out around the jail!"? No one. Any attempt to uplift the distinct and vibrant cultures on both sides of Michigan Central Station would effectively end if the building were transformed into a jail and court complex. Say goodbye to the dreams of music festivals, or movie nights, or playscapes, or any of the other things that contribute to rich cultural life in cities.

Lastly, from a social justice perspective, we should be shutting down jails rather than building them. That the county finds itself in a $100 million hole is nothing compared to the countless lives (particularly those of men of color) that have been ruined by a bias and unjust criminal justice system. To honor imprisonment with a building as beautiful and regal, and as central to our public consciousness, as Michigan Central Station would be to uplift the worst aspects of our society—the aspects most in need of serious reform, which have torn our communities apart, rather than lifting them up. Additionally, the Michigan Central Station site is difficult to access without a motor vehicle, meaning the people who most often have to interact with the criminal justice system (the poor) will be at an even greater disadvantage. A socially just jail site, if there can be such a thing, must be accessible to people who can't afford a car.

Michigan Central Station has a future, though it has yet to be written. That future may be an abandoned building with a reframed relationship to the public (like the Coliseum in Rome) or it could be redeveloped to meet the needs of a new era using new tactics of development. What we do know is that no matter what, absurd and destructive proposals like this one must be lambasted, mocked, and ridiculed before they can be taken seriously and take root in the halls of power. Otherwise, we will destroy everything that has the potential to make Detroit a leader in 21st Century urban development that we all know it can become.

Mayor Duggan likes to say that every neighborhood has a future. If the proposal becomes reality, I'm not so sure that's true.

Watch: Detroit's Gorgeous Fisher Building

Michigan Central Station

2198 Michigan Ave, Detroit, MI 48216