OCTOBER 1, 2013 — In the 1920s, property owners along Detroit’s Park Avenue had a vision to transform the street into our answer to New York’s Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, or perhaps even Rush Street in Chicago. Now it may end up as hockey arena parking lots. The Red Wings and Olympia Development have promised a new arena and a “45-block entertainment district” that will require the demolition of irreplaceable historic Park Avenue architecture.
As Detroit has made a game of comparing ourselves to other cities, we’ve too often overlooked what makes us special and unique on our own terms. Park Avenue is a good example.
The corridor, running just west of Woodward from Grand Circus Park toward Midtown was developed in succeeding waves of 19th Century frame houses, fashionable apartments, early 20th Century residential hotels, commercial buildings and social gathering spots. Much of that historic fabric still exists, but much of what exists may soon crumble either by ongoing neglect or upcoming decree.
The Park Avenue Local Historic District encompasses four blocks of Park between Elizabeth Street and the Fisher Freeway. At its peak though, commerce, nightlife and fine accommodations extended much farther north along Park toward Sproat Street, where the 1924 Eddystone Hotel and the Park Avenue Hotel anchor two corners. The Park Avenue Hotel is itself a National Register Historic District built by Lew Tuller also in 1924.
The two oldest buildings in the district, the 1898 Mera Hotel at 122 W. Elizabeth and the 1909 Blenheim Apartments at 2138 Park indicate the district’s residential origins. The 1920 building at Park and Elizabeth where Cliff Bell’s is today shows the increasing demand for commercial space as Downtown grew north toward Park Avenue. Though only two stories tall, it was built with a frame that would support a much taller building. Social halls like the Women’s City Club and Colony Club followed quickly, around the same time as the area’s elegant residential hotels, including the Park Avenue and the 1925 Royal Palms, where the Town Pump Tavern is today.
As historically important as Park Avenue has been, many buildings have been lost for parking lots. Some fell to neglect, like the Hotel Charlevoix just this year. Others like the Park Avenue and Eddystone Hotels now face demolition for the Ilitch family’s new arena and vague talk of a massive entertainment district.
If that new district is anything like what was promised around Comerica Park, don’t count on being too entertained. Highly publicized hotel and other stadium-related spinoff development never materialized along Woodward. So effectively, the Wolverine Hotel was demolished and the Gem and Century Theatres and Elwood Bar & Grill were shuffled offsite not for Comerica Park, but for a surface parking lot land grab.
Downtown and Midtown residential units are 97 percent occupied today and Dan Gilbert is decreasing Downtown’s commercial vacancy rate while increasing its inventory by reviving historic buildings. So Detroit deserves better than murky suggestions of development over multiple blocks at the cost of its historic architecture (and a pretty public penny) from the Red Wings and Olympia Development, an entity that has demolished more than it has developed.
The success of Cliff Bell’s, the Centaur Bar, Town Pump Tavern and the revitalized historic buildings in which they’re located prove the viability of historic preservation in the existing Park Avenue entertainment district. The same thing can happen with the Park Avenue and Eddystone Hotels and other threatened historic structures along the corridor.
So we have a choice to make today, Detroit: refill the one-of-a-kind historic buildings that make Detroit unique—while the market is growing for them—and fit new development into the many vacant lots around them, or ruin more of our rich, unique history for pie-in-the-sky development concepts that may never happen.[PD]