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Detroit council designates historic district near LCA

The Berwin apartment building on Henry Street in Detroit.

Detroit — The City Council approved Tuesday an ordinance that will create a historic district that could protect a single block of buildings in the shadow of Little Caesars Arena from being demolished.

In a unanimous vote of those present, the council voted in favor of creating the Cass Henry Historic District. Councilman Scott Benson, who has previously expressed support for the district, was not in attendance.

The district is between Cass and Second, and the Fisher Freeway service drive and Henry. Properties include 427 Henry (The Henry), 439 Henry (Bretton Hall), 459 Henry (Claridge Apartments), 489 Henry (Berwin Apartments), 447 Henry (William B. Ralston Garage), 2447 Cass (Grande Apartments/Hotel Ansonia) and 2467 Cass (Atlanta Apartments). 

Half of the block is surface parking lots owned by the Ilitch’s Olympia Development. The company previously sought to demolish the former Hotel Ansonia, the former Atlanta Apartments and the former Henry Apartments but withdrew its request last year.

The historic district could bring challenges for demolition plans. It also creates specific guidelines for renovations.

“I think that the conversation is really about inclusion and inclusion in economic opportunity and making sure that everyone that is currently in that space has an opportunity to stay,” Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López said. “And that these buildings are preserved and the history is preserved to add to the vibrancy and the culture and diversity of that neighborhood.”

Representatives for Olympia Development did not speak at the meeting.

Ed Saenz, spokesman for Olympia Development, said in a statement that the company "has a long history of supporting historic redevelopment in the city, with 10 important and celebrated buildings in The District Detroit either already completed or in the planning, financing, or leasing stage, including 1922 Cass, 2110 Park, 2210 Park, 100 Sprout, 150 Bagley, 408 Temple and 100 Temple."

"We will continue to pursue options for this part of the city that generate density, lead to successful development, and grow the city’s tax base in support of the long-term goals of the city, its residents and the District Detroit," he said. 

Council members noted that even with the historic designation, there is no guarantee that those living in the remaining low-rent apartment buildings would be able to remain in their homes. 

"I don't want people to lose sight though while it is affordable today doesn't mean it will be affordable tomorrow," Councilwoman Janee Ayers said. 

Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield piggybacked on Ayers' comments, saying that the historic designation does not prevent a developer from making the buildings market rate.

"We're doing our part by making the historic designation, but they still have the flexibility to do what they want to do," she said. 

Saenz did not provide comment regarding Olympia Development's stance on affordable housing within the historic district.

Castañeda-López has said that the City Council was told by Olympia Development last week that it planned to overhaul the block with the addition of a large commercial building where the Berwin and Bretton Hall apartment buildings are located.

According to the city, property owners within an historic structure who seek to demolish a structure must submit a building permit and request permission from the Detroit Historic District Commission with "a detailed justification stating why building or portion of building needs to be demolished" as well as "a detailed description of what will happen to the site after the demolition occurs."

Detroit Historic District Commission approval also is required for exterior paint color changes, masonry reconstruction, sign installation and building cleaning.

Preservationists said Tuesday they were thrilled with the designation but consider it just the beginning of preservation efforts in the Cass Corridor. 

"Our hope is that this is a turning point for how development happens in Detroit," said Eric Kehoe, board president of Preservation Detroit.

"Research shows that reusing these types of buildings can provide more economic and cultural benefits to Detroiters than demolishing them for larger, newer structures. ... The area's Neighborhood Advisory Committee hopes to preserve existing affordability and walkability in the neighborhood, and we will continue to support their efforts."

Questions arose earlier Tuesday over whether President Brenda Jones should participate in the vote since a fundraiser for her congressional campaign was held at the Little Caesars Arena. The event, she noted, was planned and paid for by a supporter. 

Council's legal staff weighed in, saying Jones' disclosure of having a fundraiser there was "sufficient." 

"I don't see a need to recuse in this instance," said David Whitaker, who heads the council's Legislative Policy Division. The city's law department agreed.

Jones, prior to casting her vote, stressed the event “was no secret” and that holding the fundraiser at the site would not influence her vote.

"I don't think you have a choice but to vote," Whitaker told Jones. "You have an obligation as an elected official of this body to vote on this matter."

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN