Downtown Detroit on Endangered List

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is placing all of downtown Detroit on its list of 11 most endangered historic sites in the country. The Trust says there are several historic sites in Detroit in danger from neglect. It's also concerned by city efforts to clean up before July's baseball All-Star Game and February's Super Bowl.

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There was an unusual announcement today from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. On its list of the 11 Most Endangered sites in the country: the historic buildings of downtown Detroit, all of them. The move is largely symbolic, but as Jerome Vaughn of Detroit Public Radio reports, it highlights a debate between city officials and preservationists.

JEROME VAUGHN reporting:

For years Detroiters have been amazed at the existence of trees growing on the roofs of abandoned buildings. One of them is easily visible from the upper deck of the city's baseball stadium. As I drive east on Michigan Avenue, hundreds of cars snake through downtown Detroit looking for parking spaces. Baseball fans are on their way to Comerica Park; many of those fans walk past the old Book-Cadillac Hotel on their way to the ballpark. Abandoned buildings are no surprise to Detroiters, but the Book-Cadillac was once the most prestigious hotel in town and now sits abandoned with broken windows and a large chain-link fence surrounding the site to make sure no vandals get in.

(Soundbite of ambient noise in ballpark)

VAUGHN: Inside the ballpark, 74-year-old Bob Vandevanner(ph) is standing beside a plastic table trying to sign up people for a Fantasy Baseball Camp. He takes a moment in between customers to reminisce about the Book-Cadillac Hotel.

Mr. BOB VANDEVANNER: There was a bar, and I wish I could remember the name of it, but there two or three barber chairs. You'd sit in a barber's chair and you got waited on.

VAUGHN: The Book-Cadillac Hotel is probably the most famous abandoned building in Detroit. It's become a rallying point for local preservationists and briefly served as the city's proof that it was coming back. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced plans to rehab the hotel a few years ago, but those plans have fallen through. Preservationists worry that Detroit's efforts to spruce up the city for major-league baseball's All-Star Game next month and Super Bowl XL in February could endanger several historic buildings that have have long been vacant.

Just last month the city demolished the historic Madison-Lennox Hotel without warning. City officials say the building was a danger to the public and had to be leveled immediately. Preservationists had been battling to save the former residential hotel. Richard Moe is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He says the fight over the Madison-Lennox and concern for the Book-Cadillac played a key role in the decision to place all of downtown Detroit on the list of 11 Most Endangered sites. He worries about historic preservation in Detroit, saying too many city officials seem to have the idea that newer is better.

Mr. RICHARD MOE (President, National Trust for Historic Preservation): What people in Detroit should do is they should go to Chicago, they should go to Denver, they should go to almost any city in the country and see what they've done with older buildings.

VAUGHN: A few miles away, a well-dressed man walks out of a renovated warehouse on the city's waterfront. Detroit's chief development director, Walt Watkins, has just completed a radio talk show segment on the city's development initiatives. He takes issue with the charge that city officials aren't interested in preservation.

Mr. WALT WATKINS (Chief Development Director, Detroit): Recently we've been painted as an administration that's really callous in terms of preservation, and nothing could be further from the truth.

VAUGHN: Watkins points to several high-profile rehab projects in the downtown core, turning some into commercial space and others into residential lofts. He says every old building can't be brought back to life. He says estimates for renovating the Book-Cadillac alone exceed $160 million. Watkins says preservationists often turn up a day late and a dollar short.

Mr. WATKINS: It would seem to me that people wouldn't just come out of the woodwork when a wrecking ball is imminent; that they'd be working on these buildings for the last 30 years.

VAUGHN: Watkins' views resonate with some residents here, who have long gazed at vacant, derelict buildings without seeing any action.

(Soundbite of ambient noise in ballpark)

VAUGHN: Back at Comerica Park, longtime Detroiter Bob Vandevanner says despite his fond memories, he expects to see changes downtown, starting with the Madison-Lennox site.

Mr. VANDEVANNER: Some buildings should be saved. Preservationists want to save them all, but, you know--and in 12 years it's been disintegrated so bad, it's beyond saving. That's only my opinion. Maybe if someone had caught it 10 years ago, they could have saved it, and it could be a beautiful building.

VAUGHN: Preservationists here say they're mindful of the city's economic development goals, but they want to save as many historic buildings as possible to keep Detroit not just viable but interesting for future generations. For NPR News, I'm Jerome Vaughn in Detroit.

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