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Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Dream for Mobility - Disintegration of Downtown Detroit

A vision for mobility in Detroit, ca. 1935.

Recent proposals for demolition of the State Savings Bank in Detroit, ignited a debate about parking downtown and the impact this has had on the quality of place . Melanie Markowicz, President of Preservation Detroit weighed in with the following op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press.

Detroit is dotted with the palimpsest of heritage erased for one reason or another. In many areas of the city, the end result is a disjointed assemblage of buildings amid a sea of vacant lots. However, in the central business district, we still have some building density left; and that is something we should safeguard as responsible stewards of our city. We can no longer afford to ignore that continuing to demolish our reusable historic buildings for parking lots directly affects the revitalization of Detroit and all of theinvestments in it. Hopefully, the outcry of concerned citizens and organizations is heard loud and clear.
A glut of parking in downtown Detroit is not an altogether new phenomenon. Instead, the roots of the parking vs. place debate are as old as there were automobiles. A Street Traffic survey was conducted between 1936-1937 by the Works Progress Administration. This called for increasing parking downtown, as well for novel systems of circulation including multi-level roadways (see above). Were a retroactive manifesto to be written about Detroit, the story writ large would be accommodating greater mobility by sacrificing the historic fabric and quality of place. While each incident where this happened might have a limited impact, in total this disintegration of the historic fabric made Detroit less interesting and desirable of a place to live, visit, and work.

Detroit Traffic Survey showing the chipping away of buildings around the downtown core.

Early parking lot with vintage cars, ca. 1935.

As economic malaise set on Detroit with a decline of population, this put great pressure on the downtown. Many partially or fully vacant buildings proved too hard to maintain. These were too frequently removed and replaced by vacant asphalt parking lots. In a way this was a sort of fulfillment of planners plans from 1930's to make parking cheap, accessible, and abundant downtown. A review of historic maps and photographs between 1976 and 2006 showed that over 50% of the buildings in downtown Detroit were demolished in four decades. When added to other losses, this led to a historic downtown area fundamentally changed.

Fast forward to present. Some effort has been made to provide "infill" and convert parking lots to buildings. Certainly the location of casinos on the west and northwest section of the downtown and the side-by-side stadiums on the north-east corner prove this trend. Balancing it are the many vacant places waiting to be filled. Notable is the former Hudson's Building site on Woodward Avenue. Following demolition of this iconic building, an underground parking garage was constructed, though nothing else.

One lesson to take way from this ever-changing transformation of downtown Detroit is that where buildings have been retained they have gone on to have productive uses. Where historic buildings have been lost, however, it has proven very hard to replace them with something new. And while new development has transformed the downtown for the better in many cases, this is hardly enough to replace what has been lost. Hopefully Detroit will find an equilibrium with the right balance between  accessibility, parking, and having a livable city too. Retaining historic buildings ought to be an important part of such a strategy. Meanwhile, for close followers of downtown Detroit the surest sign of success will be when surface parking lots and parking garages begin to disappear. Removal of parking has heralded the resurgence of livable places elsewhere and hopefully will do the same for Detroit too.

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