Francis Grunow declares the era of downtown demolition over

Feb 18, 2015 at 1:00 am

You may have heard of Preservation Detroit. Francis Grunow was executive director of it a decade ago, when it was still called Preservation Wayne. Back then, the organization was offering spirited opposition to planned demolitions downtown, facing off against the Ilitch organization, the city of Detroit, and George Jackson, whose reign as head of the DEGC was characterized as "Demolishing Everything George Chooses." Grunow was also one of the co-founders of the inventive Marche du Nain Rouge parade that has become a spring event drawing thousands of young, upbeat metro Detroiters to the Cass Corridor. These days, he works for a firm called New Solutions Group, a company that works mostly with nonprofit enterprises.

Metro Times: So, back when I first met you 10 years ago, you were working for Preservation Wayne?

Francis Grunow: Yeah, I was hired by Preservation Wayne for four years as executive director.

MT: During which you locked horns with some big names.

Grunow: If memory serves, we took the city to court, we also took the Ilitches to court, and those were the Statler and Madison-Lenox cases. And we were granted temporary restraining orders in both cases because they were both issues that had no other point of mediation. They were essentially things that were being removed that could not be replaced. So there was a temporary restraining order per the court in both cases, and we're wondering today whether they would be under redevelopment right now.

MT: They came down in '04?

Grunow: They came down in 2005, the Madison-Lenox came down before the All-Star game, and the Statler before the Super Bowl.

MT: If we still had the Statler today right next to the redeveloped David Whitney building, wouldn't that be a candidate for ... ?

Grunow: I'm guessing it would be under development right now. There would be people talking about how another several hundred new residents would be moving downtown in 2016, 2017.

MT: And you'll never have a building like that.

Grunow: We'll never have that again, and what's being proposed for that site right now is several stories shorter, and certainly, from an architectural standpoint, and from an urban quality of life standpoint, frankly, a lesser building. The Statler was built in a time when Detroit was in its ascendency. We've lost a lot in Grand Circus Park. The Hotel Tuller is gone, the Statler is gone, and thank goodness Broderick and Whitney remain, and double-thank goodness that they've been redeveloped in the last three years to sort of be the anchors that they always were. Then you have Hudson's, the YMCA, the YWCA, the Wolverine Hotel. I mean, just dozens and dozens of structures that are gone. And I wonder, that if a few more of those had been able to last through the decade-and-a-half where all bets were off on Detroit, would those be seeing new life now? The ones that are currently parking lots? These were 10-, 12-, 15-story buildings that are gone, and we don't have the density or the impetus to re-create that kind of urban landscape. What if Hudson's were still there? That's 2.2 million square feet of re-developable infrastructure that was built to last. It wasn't going anywhere.

MT: As a preservationist, do you see the era of downtown demolition coming to an end?

Grunow: Yes, I think it's over. At least as far as big buildings, important buildings getting demolished for nothing. Which has been our MO for the last 20 or 30 years.

MT: Just play a little what-if, what if we had spent all the money we spent demolishing buildings in downtown Detroit on mothballing them.

Grunow: I don't know it's a crazy thought, what if we had done that? If we had spent X-amount on mothballing these buildings over this period of time where we would be looking at a Statler or Hudson's building that had been wrapped up and kept in a limited state of maintenance? We'd be looking at millions more square feet of taxable infrastructure. What would that be like? How many more people could be living and working downtown? How could Quicken and these other industries expand downtown. We think about, not only the sort of national trends of millenials thinking about downtowns being like the primary places that they want to live, we think about population expansion. We're talking about diversifying our economy. Downtowns are where you do it. People like Dan Gilbert understand that. He understands it's not about having a suburban, corporate campus. It's about people going outside, and going across the street, going to a bar or restaurant, understanding that there is a space in between work and home and that is what we're beginning to rediscover. And Detroit is poised for that. Yet if you think about what we've lost, what we've demolished, what we've taken down for a relatively short period of time where downtown was down, it's really sad. We did it intentionally, with public money, based on the fact that the buildings, at the time, for a period, were vacant. But I do think that we're past that.