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Panel votes to raze historic hotel for Detroit arena

Mark Hicks, Christine Ferretti and Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — Despite protest from some community members and preservationists, the city's Historic District Commission voted Wednesday to approve the Ilitch organization's request to raze a historic hotel near the new Detroit Red Wings arena.

A demolition date has not yet been finalized for the Italian Renaissance-inspired edifice that has been abandoned for years. The leveling of the former Park Avenue Hotel is a key goal in building the $450 million new arena.

The razing cannot start until project developer Olympia Development of Michigan has secured a certificate from the commission for their plans on rehabilitating another historic building in the arena's area — the Eddystone — since the deals are tied, commissioner James Hamilton said. July is the earliest the commission could take up the proposal that could pave the way for the certificate, he said.

Project representatives said the Park hotel demolition was needed as part of the new arena development, and commission members cited the future benefits as well as the City Council's support.

"I think what the council had in mind is pretty clear," Hamilton said before voting to allow the demolition in the 3-1 decision.

Others were dismayed by the commission's move.

"It represents a broken process in the way historic buildings are decided upon," said Amy Swift, who is active with Preservation Detroit.

Wednesday's vote is the first of potentially many regarding Olympia's epic design to overhaul some 45 blocks of Detroit into a dense, walkable district with hundreds of new apartments, stores, restaurants and offices. The arena is the linchpin of those plans but much of that other development hasn't been revealed.

Within those 45 blocks are plenty of historic buildings, which means any changes may need approval by the Historic District Commission.

During the hearing, representatives for Olympia highlighted key parts of the arena plan and described why the hotel needed to be razed.

The Cass Corridor building is in a high-security zone of the proposed arena, Olympia has said. Olympia Development is the real estate arm of the powerful Ilitch organization. In its place, an underground loading dock would be built to ensure the multipurpose venue can accommodate major concerts and other events.

Expanding the loading dock allowed for incoming vehicles to be "located behind closed doors, underground, out of sight, out of impact to pedestrians," said Richard Heapes, partner at Street-Works Development, who spoke Wednesday on Olympia's behalf.

Demolishing the hotel paved the way for the project to progress and aligns with the overall goal "to reconnect Midtown to downtown Detroit," said Emily Palacios, an attorney with the Miller Canfield firm, who also represented Olympia at the meeting.

Additionally, city officials weighed in on the importance of finalizing the arena development.

"I think we are poised to realize something that is fairly unique in the United States," said Maurice Cox, the new city planning director.

If the historic commission had denied Olympia's request, the developer would have had to seek approval from the state historic commission.

Melvin Butch Hollowell, the city's corporation counsel, said the razing had to happen for Olympia to rehab the Eddystone as agreed.

Some preservationists and others in the city questioned the plans.

"More dollars are driven by rehabilitation than new construction," said Nancy Finegood, executive director of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network.

Nicholas Miller, a Midtown resident, said he relocated to the city for its "visual splendor" and the historic structures there are "Detroit's competitive advantage."

Others supported the measure, saying it secured a development considered a catalyst for jobs and economic growth. "You may lose one (building), but you're also saving one," said Joseph Barney, a veteran paramedic with Detroit EMS and union leader. "It's not about the past, it's about tomorrow."

Commissioner Lauren Hood was the lone no vote Wednesday.

" I feel we missed an opportunity to make a statement," she said after the vote.

Two other commissioners, Joni Thrower and Kenneth Sanders, in addition to Hamilton, voted to approve the razing.

The decision on the controversial plan to tear down the former Park Avenue Hotel came amid a recent shakeup in membership of the commission. The board changes shakeup by Mayor Mike Duggan has sparked criticism that the mayor wanted to ensure the historic commission would will approve tearing down the historic building.

Duggan denies the accusation, but at least one board member on the commission says "she's lost a little bit of faith in the process."

The commission took up the razing request weeks after one member was replaced by Duggan for serving on an expired term and another resigned.

Duggan asked former commissioner Julie Long to step down last month for having an expired term. Boston Edison resident Sanders was soon appointed as Long's replacement.

Two other members also are serving on expired terms and will eventually be replaced, the Mayor's Office has said.

The administration said the change is tied to an ongoing review of Detroit boards and commissions that's been ongoing for more than a year.