Four ways history shapes downtown Detroit today

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — News that two real estate moguls want to build a mega-million dollar "innovation center" at the site of a botched county jail project is the latest example of a two-century pattern that's shaped downtown, according to a book examining the development of the city’s central business district. 

The dreams of wealthy landowners have always determined the way downtown looks and operates far more than government plans, said Conrad Kickert, a professor of urban design at the University of Cincinnati. Often those monied visions trump government-driven ideas, he said.

Conrad Kickert

“Private money always wins," said Kickert. His book “Dream City: Creation, Destruction and Reinvention in Downtown Detroit” (MIT Press), ties downtown’s current landscape to 214 years of influences. "You should almost see this as a choreography, a dance between private and public interests. And there is a lot of missteps in that dance."

For better or worse, Kickert contends, modern-day downtown is chock-full of examples of that awkward never-ending dance: the confusing street grid, the persistence of surface parking lots, the decades-long delay in turning the riverfront into a public recreation area, the huge swaths of property linked to billionaires.

Kickert’s book and ideas have “merit” said Craig Wilkins, a lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He’s also the former director of UM’s Detroit Community Design Center in Detroit's Midtown.

“The commercial hub of a city usually is shaped by the merchants and business people who want to display their wealth,” Wilkins said. “It is really hard for a government or municipality to say no that kind of wealth."

It was little surprise to Kickert when New York City real estate kingpin Stephen Ross and Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert announced in October they are teaming up to develop a proposed technology-focused educational campus that would be run by the University of Michigan. The site, on the edge of the Greektown district, is where Wayne County began building a jail in 2011. Two years and $151 million later, the county realized it was going to be $171 million over budget, making the jail a project it couldn't afford. Early estimates for the sleek UM “innovation center” are $500 million, according to Bedrock officials. 

The UM project fits into Kickert’s narrative that wealthy landowners tend to call the shots downtown. And it's further proof the central business district is a “huge paradox," he said. "You see these high-end bars, coffee shops, high-end people for that matter. You walk a few blocks in each direction and you see gravel parking lots and freeways that abruptly cut off the downtown from neighborhoods. How did we get to this landscape of contrasts?"

The Dutch-born Kickert began researching the history of downtown development in 2010 as part of his dissertation at the University of Michigan, where he obtained a doctorate in architecture. 

In Kickert’s view, here are four ways history shapes the downtown we see today: 

Judge Augustus B. Woodward’s 1805 plan for Detroit featured a hub-and-spoke street plan radiating south from Grand Circus down to Jefferson Avenue.

1. The confusing street grid is due to the 19th-century smackdown of a plan started by Augustus Bevroot Woodward

The Great Fire of 1805 had ravaged the fortified settlement of Detroit in what was then the U.S. Territory of Michigan. Woodward was the Washington-appointed judge whose duties included rebuilding the area.

He designed a street grid in the “hub and spoke” system modeled after Washington, D.C., and Versailles, France. The beginnings of his plan can be seen at Grand Circus Park, where multiple streets, or spokes, lead to a central hub, which is the park itself. The spokes only got built a few blocks in each direction.

"The dream was abruptly stopped by rich landowners," Kickert said. "They wanted a grid because a basic grid system is much easier to develop.”

The result is gnarly multiple-headed intersections where hub-and-spoke collide with basic grid. The spots befuddle drivers and pedestrians and are routinely traffic-choked. The mash-up of Lafayette, Michigan and Griswold near Campus Martius is an example. Another is the Cass-Grand River intersection that also has two small streets, Middle Street and Plaza Drive, feeding into the same point. The intersection of Gratiot and Broadway somehow involves eight corners. 

“Even the basic grid of downtown is as much a realized dream as a broken dream,” Kickert said.

Grand Circus Park, seen on Aug. 19, 1959, was under construction to add municipal parking lots.

2. No other major U.S. downtown has so few big private owners

Entities linked to Gilbert’s Bedrock LLC have bought more than 100 downtown properties since 2010. The billionaire exerts so much influence on buildings, jobs, shopping, dining, surveillance — the overall zeitgeist of downtown — that some call it "Gilbertville." Bedrock has smartly used historic preservation as a "selling point," Kickert said.

Entities linked to Ilitch Holdings Inc.— whose assets include the Little Caesars pizza chain, Fox Theatre and Detroit Tigers and Red Wings — control an estimated 391 properties in an area including downtown and north of the central business district. The Ilitch group says it aims to build five new neighborhoods. It's far from reality at this point. 

The Belt in the heart of downtown Detroit is located between Broadway and Library Street and links Gratiot Avenue and Grand River.

“Detroit has a unique collection of fiefdoms," Kickert said. "I’m not aware of any major U.S. downtown that has gone to this extreme."

It’s due to waves of “power vacuums” that include the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s, the 1967 uprising and the dearth of traditional financing for developments, Kickert said. Those factors made private investment a risky venture.

It’s not just the Ilitches and Gilbert who amassed land. DTE Energy accumulated blocks for its corporate headquarters on the northwest edge of downtown. The massive GM Renaissance Center was an attempt by Henry Ford II to revive a struggling downtown late last century. As often is the case, the government, both local and federal, supported these plans with ample tax subsidies.

"Many private landowners realize the need to create their own ecosystems,” Kickert said. 

3. There was a 1924 plan to make the downtown riverfront look a bit like Venice, Italy

It was introduced by architect Eliel Saarinen, who also designed the campus of Cranbrook Educational Campus. He envisioned a city hall, convention center and civic hall modeled after St. Mark's Square.

Gabriel Richard Park is the easternmost point for the Detroit Riverwalk and offers a spectacular view of Belle Isle.

Saarinen wasn't the first or last to advocate transforming the riverfront from industrial into something more civic-oriented and public. Parts of the idea became reality through the decades with Hart Plaza, Cobo Center (now called TCF Center) and Chene Park (now Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre). The long-deferred dream really took root in 2007 with the debut of the Riverwalk, the public pedestrian and bike path that lines the waterfront. It attracts 3 million people a year. 

The Riverwalk got something right that many previous riverfront plans ignored, Kickert said.  "It's successful because it helps spur private development. That's the pitch behind it, not just civic pride, but a solid business investment."

4. Max Goldberg is one of the most influential downtown developers ever

Never heard of him? He was a Ukrainian immigrant struggling to make a living as a car parts salesman in early 20th-century downtown. In 1917, he tried a new idea: charging motorists a fee to park on an empty lot. The lot was on the 400 block of West Lafayette, on what’s now a Comerica Bank building. Some historians consider it the nation’s first commercial parking lot, Kickert contends.

A parking lot located at Cass Avenue and Temple Street across from Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Goldberg became known as the “Parking Lot King,” operating at least 36 downtown lots by the 1930s. “He started an empire with drastic consequences,” Kickert said.  

Since 1929, downtown has consistently replaced space for people (homes, offices, shops) with space for cars. Even in this decade, parking dominates: 8% of new construction of downtown between 2011 and 2018 has been for vehicle parking, Kickert said. A group called Detroiters for Parking Reform says 40% of land used downtown is dedicated to parking.

This parking lot located at Fort Street and Cass Avenue in Detroit has been a parking lot for a century.

A handful of surface parking lots have survived long enough to deserve historical recognition, Conrad said. On the northeast corner of Cass Avenue and West Lafayette is a surface parking lot that takes up most of the block. It’s one of the lots started by Goldberg close to 100 years ago. It's been a parking lot ever since. That’s a feat of endurance few downtown businesses can claim. Other downtown lots have been around for decades.

"Why shouldn't we give historical plaques for parking lots?" Kickert asks. "It is the Motor City, after all."

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN