Lennox: New developments overshadow Detroit’s past

Dennis Lennox
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There’s no doubting that Detroit is finally on the rebound.

That has been the storyline since the city emerged from the bankruptcy heard around the world. In fact, there seems to be an endless stream of announcements touting this or that new development or redevelopment of vacant or otherwise derelict properties.

Detroit’s rapid transformation should be applauded. At the same time, it seems that many are turning a blind eye to the unintended consequences.

Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the city’s decades-long decline — one could argue there hasn’t been this much momentum since Detroit’s peak in 1950, when it was the country’s wealthiest city — has been the preservation of buildings in nearly every architectural style since before the Civil War.

Everywhere else the old buildings were razed to make way for skyscrapers and other modern developments, as well as large-scale infrastructure projects.

That generally wasn’t the case in Detroit, where specimens of Gothic revival, Richardson Romanesque, beau arts, art deco and other styles are plentiful. Even clapboard cottages can be found in Corktown, the neighborhood once favored by the 19th century laborers who emigrated from Ireland.

While local, state and national preservation and heritage authorities have listed many of the city’s significant buildings there seems to be little concern that new developments are not just overshadowing Detroit’s past, but will also transform the city into something barely distinguishable from the plate-glass and concrete jungles of other urban environs.

A good example is Fort Wayne along the Detroit River.

Fort Wayne should be like Belle Isle — a gem in the city’s crown. Unfortunately, it sits largely forgotten and way underutilized, despite obvious appeal as both an educational resource and tourist attraction.

More troubling are reports touting potential redevelopment of Fort Wayne when this landmark’s historic footprint is already jeopardized by the imminent construction of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, the new crossing to Canada.

Then there are the sweeping changes in and around the new Red Wings arena over to Brush Park, the neighborhood known for its incredible late 19th-century architecture.

Some of the existing historic buildings, including the circa 1878 Ransom Gillis House, located about 5 minutes from Comerica Park and Ford Field, are being restored as part of plans for 300 new housing units.

Yet instead of incorporating Brush Park’s existing architectural style, the developers have chosen to build structures that are at best bland and at worst hideous, at least judging from renderings released to the public earlier this year.

To be clear, development isn’t a naughty word. Far from it, actually.

Development needs to be encouraged and fostered, as it will bring much-needed economic prosperity to a city that desperately needs it.

However, development must focus on leveraging Detroit’s rich heritage to make it a world-class city in its own right.

The last thing needed is a Detroit version of Boston or Chicago.

Dennis Lennox is a freelance columnist.

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