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Plan would grow walkable campus linking Detroit cultural institutions

Louis Aguilar Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — A new vision is taking shape for the area surrounding the Detroit Institute of Arts in the city's thriving Midtown neighborhood.

The goal: redesign the outdoor space around the 1920s-era Beaux-Arts landmark so that it becomes the heart of a walkable, innovative public area stretching for 10 blocks and linking 11 major institutions.

The plan would ideally better connect  Wayne State University, the main Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the College for Creative Studies, the Michigan Science Center, and others. 

“We want to be a gathering place for everybody,” says Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA director.

The Detroit Institute of Arts  and the Detroit Public Library along Woodward Avenue in Detroit on Tuesday, January 8, 2019 in the museum district will soon be connected by pedestrian spaces in a cultural campus.

Imagine the way the Detroit Riverwalk has changed the downtown riverfront into an urban playground, or how Campus Martius Park has become a hub for family-friendly events. That's the same hope for the "DIA Plaza and Midtown Cultural Connections" project. 

Early cost estimates for the plan are between $75 million to $85 million, organizers said. The money will come from foundations, grants, and corporations, organizers said. No taxpayer funding is being considered, they said. 

The plan has been underway for more than a year. On Jan. 23, visions of the what the 10 blocks could look like will be unveiled by three teams of finalists. Those plans will be on display at the DIA until April. The finalist team will be selected in the spring. 

"We launched this design competition to solicit the best minds in public-space design, and didn’t give them any limitations," Salort-Pons said. "We’re looking to them for the best and most innovative solutions."

The three finalist teams include architects, urban designers, academics, artists, community organizers, traffic engineers and conservationists, and other disciplines. Each finalist group has some Detroit representation. Each team has members who have worked on major public spaces in such cities as Paris, Seoul, Dubai and Detroit.

Expectations are "pretty high," said Maurice Cox, director of Detroit's Planning and Development Department. 

“You kind of only do this work once in a generation," Cox said. "This is the cultural district’s time to finally give itself a public space identity. It has a very strong architectural identity… but it doesn’t have a public place, square." 

Cox and the DIA's Salort-Pons are part of the nine-member jury that will select the winning plan.

Some elements are likely to spark much debate, organizers said. The plan won't work unless some streets are closed, organizers and some finalist team members said. That would require city approvalAnd Woodward Avenue must become more pedestrian-friendly in some way. Woodward is a state highway, called M-1, which means any changes would need state and city approval. An elevated walkway over Woodward likely will be part of any plan, several organizers and finalists said.

And all of it has be done in some inviting form that allows everyone to feel welcome or else the plan is a failure, finalists contend.

"You can go inside any of these institutions and there is a lot of activity, but you go outside and it is if you turned off a computer. It's very quiet, there is no one walking around," said Mikyoung Kim, a Boston landscape designer who is among the finalists. Finalists from each of the three teams say they have doing a lot of listening to staff at the involved institutions as well as local residents. 

 Institutions in Detroit's cultural corridors need to stop operating as silos and work together, organizers and some finalists said.

 "Cross-pollination is something many people want," in various institutions, said Maura Rockcastle, a Minneapolis-based finalist who is a landscape architect. 

The nonprofit Midtown Detroit Inc. is one of the main drivers of the plan. The redesigned space will have help achieve many longtime goals for the area, said Susan Mosey, Midtown executive director. 

The new linked space will encourage collaborations in terms of programming and marketing, Mosey said.

The plan will revive an idea known as a Museum Pass — some type of system that people can pay one price to get access to all the museums and other centers.

“There needs to be a central space that everyone can share in, in terms of pride, in terms of programming, in terms of just kind of ownership, not technical ownership, but sort of in terms of wanting to be engaged with the space," Mosey said. "Then there will be the physical connections that would be built between that anchor space and the other institutions. Whether that ends up being landscaping play, or a lighting play or a way-finder play, or a digital something, we will find out."

Expect some street closings, said city planning director Cox.  He didn’t mention any particular streets, but added they could be streets that are "underutilized" and connect Woodward to John R.

Transportation and parking is a large part of the plan. Underground parking likely will be reactivated, Cox said. There's a 350-space underground parking lot, owned by the DIA, that's been closed since 2011 due to structural issues. 

“I don’t know if they are going to present a more dispersed parking strategy,” Cox said, “But the idea is to get people to walk and get them to feel as if it has been designed. People don’t mind parking a little farther away if the experience of parking and where they are going is a really pleasant experience.”

The idea of making the area more into a linked cultural campus has been discussed in some for more than 60 years and various attempts have been made in the past, organizers said.

If things go as planned, construction could begin as early next decade, Mosey said. That would add to the developments that many once thought were impossible to achieve that could actually become true.  In 2022, the long-dead Michigan Central Depot should reopen as Ford Motor Co.'s center for self-driving and electric vehicles.

That same year, the empty Hudson's block — named after the department store that closed n 1983 — will likely be reopen as the site of Michigan's tallest skyscraper. In 2024, the publicly owned Gordie Howe International Bridge may be ready as the new link between U.S. and Canada. 


Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN