Historic sites may be saved in new $18M State Fairgrounds transit center

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — A feasibility study commissioned by the city has determined that parts of two historically-significant buildings on the former Michigan State Fairgrounds can be saved and reused as part of a planned new $18 million transit center.

The state-of-the-art center will replace the current one on Woodward Avenue near East State Fair; however, when designs for the transit campus were announced in August, residents voiced concerns over the planned demolition of three historic buildings on the site.

In response, the city conducted a three-month feasibility study to see what could be saved of the 1924 Hertel Coliseum, a 60,000 square-foot equestrian center that hosted circuses, concerts and rodeos; the 1926 Dairy Cattle Building and the adjacent Agricultural Building, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

City of Detroit Chief Operations Office Hakim Berry addresses the media in the Dairy Cattle Building on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

City planning and transit officials released the findings of the study Friday while touring the site, announcing the Dairy Cattle Building and the facade of the Coliseum would be saved under an amended plan. The Agricultural Building would not be used as part of the project because it is leased to Joe Dumars Fieldhouse.

While the Coliseum building would be removed, the Portico would remain, welcoming riders to the transit center.

The 52,500 square-foot Dairy Cattle Building would be adapted into a bus terminal with DDOT and SMARTbuses circulating through the interior. 

"What we have on Woodward now is a collection of bus stops we call a hub, but what's coming is going to be a true transit center. It will be like night and day," Mikel Oglesby, director of DDOT, told The Detroit News.

Oglesby joined Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry, Detroit Building Authority Director Tyrone Clifton and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 President Glenn Tolbert Friday in advocating for the City Council to pass the revised plan at its last formal session on Tuesday.

If the council votes down the contract amendment, the original plan will stand and all the buildings will be torn down. 

The Dairy Cattle Barn at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. A feasibility study commissioned by the city has determined that parts of two historically-significant buildings, including the Dairy Cattle Barn, can be saved and reused as part of a planned new $18 million transit center. If the City Council OKs the revised plan the buildings will be saved.

Should it be approved, Oglesby said they hope to break ground on construction in the summer and have the site nearly complete by winter of 2022.

Renderings show inside the Cattle Building there will be a ticketing center, vending machines, meeting rooms, washrooms, separate bathrooms and a lounge for bus operators, along with a historical display and leasable space the planners foresee local food or othervendors occupying.

Pre-pandemic, Oglesby estimates the city had about 30,000 riders a week and once things return to normalcy, he anticipates ridership will rise to levels higher than before COVID-19 hit Michigan.

"This will be more than a transit center with opportunities to go shopping and have local food vendors, so I see the ridership growing because it's the end of the line... you can actually get here and do things," Oglesby said.

The transit center will increase bus access and circulation from both 8 Mile and Woodward Avenue. It will also make reaching the nearby Meijer store more accessible, Oglesby said.

The site will also have 70 staff and visitor parking spaces, 25 MOGO bicycles and a scooter area for pickups and drop-offs. 

An interior rendering of the Dairy Cattle Building on the grounds of the former Michigan State Fairground on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. The rendering shows how the Dairy Cattle Barn would be altered to become part of a planned new $18 million transit center. A feasibility study commissioned by the city has determined that parts of two historically-significant buildings could be saved as part of the project. The City Council must OK the plan for it to proceed.

A $400 million Amazon distribution center is expected to revitalize the former fairgrounds after years of neglect, and City Council previously approved a $7 million plan for an entirely new transit center from developers as part of their deal to buy the land.

It costs more to restore historic sites than to build new ones, said Clifton, but an adapted re-use project was always on the table.

"We're excited that we can, honestly, per our other option of just knocking everything down and building something new," Clifton told The News. "(The alternative) would have been more robust than what you see on Woodward, but it wouldn't have been as grand as this opportunity."

The remaining expenses of the $18 million project are covered by previously approved bond sales and will not be paid from the city's general fund. The day-to-day operational budget has not been solidified but Clifton noted there is a large amount of asphalt,  concrete and greenery to maintain. 

Andy Didorosi, owner of the Detroit Bus Company, remembers growing up eating elephant ears at the fairgrounds and said he'd hate to see an empty field.

"If we don't get the vote, it'll just be like State Fair all over again," said Didorosi, who has served as transit commissioner at-large for the last eight years. "The one that's on the curb on Woodward is the worst. It's overcrowded, packed full of people and is one of our busiest transfers in the whole city. We're growing and we need a center to take that rider load."

Of the 142-acre site at Woodward near Eight Mile, 78 acres are being redeveloped for the 3.8 million-square-foot Amazon facility and the remaining 70 acres will be redeveloped into potential spaces for automotive industry suppliers.

Officials and dignitaries attend a press conference at the Dairy Cattle Building on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021. A feasibility study commissioned by the city has determined that parts of two historically-significant buildings, including the Dairy Cattle Building, on the former Michigan State Fairgrounds can be saved and reused as part of a planned new $18 million transit center. If the City Council OKs the revised plan the buildings will be saved.

Other historic elements from the former fairgrounds, including the bandshell, were moved earlier this year. The bandshell is now in Palmer Park.

There was concern over air circulation and how the transit will operate in major snow events, Oglesby said. They took suggestions and are confident they've satisfied all the needs of the riding public and operators.

"Operators need to have a place that's also safe, a place to wash up, feel wanted and be wanted and we want them to have the best of the best," Oglesby said.

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_