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Preservation vs Demolition


The typical battle between preservation and demolition is playing out in downtown Lincoln Park this spring.

At the center of it all is the Mellus Newspapers building, a historic-yet-vacant single-story building that used to be home to the local newspaper. In one corner are the local preservation-minded activists who see it as an opportunity to create an innovative institution while maintaining a piece of Lincoln Park’s unique character. In the other corner are city officials and local stake holders who see it as a dilapidated blight dragging down the business district, robbing it of precious parking and potentially denser redevelopment.

"It's time to ask, is this one of the areas you clear off to create more parking or build taller buildings?" says Steve Duchane, city manager of Lincoln Park.

Both points of view believe they have the best interests of the downtown and overall city at heart, but see it from starkly different perspectives. One relies on the traditional conventional wisdom that tearing it down means developers will come while the other believes renovating it means the downtown has a better shot of coming back.

"It's important because it helps get people walking around," says Leslie Lynch-Wilson, president of the Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance. "It's a story to tell."

Meddling with the Mellus

Downtown Lincoln Park came of age in the 1920s, and the Mellus was built at 1661 Fort Street in the mid 1940s. At the time it showed off a spiffy porcelain enameled Moderne commercial building exterior and curved glass block entrance, features that are still intact. These details were all the rage in the mid 20th Century but are hard to find today.

For decades, the building served as home to the local community newspaper, the Lincoln Parker. It later became the home of Mellus Newspapers, which were owned by downriver newspaper magnate William Mellus, a good friend of famed automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker.  The building served as a focal point for life in Lincoln Park for much of the middle 20th Century. 

The building started to fall on hard times in the 80s, around the same time many downtowns hit the rocks. New shopping malls were all the rage, pulling customers away with easy parking and popular chain stores. Mellus Newspapers moved out in 1986 and the building was sold to the Violet Mellus Trust a couple years later. A new landlord from West Bloomfield bought it in 1994 but didn’t put it on the market until two years ago. It made the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

The building's exterior looks as sound as ever. The windows are intact and the walls are clear of graffiti, but the interior is in disrepair. Scrappers have stripped out the copper, sunshine peers through small holes in the roof, and people inside must step around puddles of water and animal droppings. These and other problems are far from insurmountable, but renovation would require a significant investment to bring it up to code.

The Lincoln Park Downtown Development Authority is in the process of purchasing the Mellus building (and adjacent Pollak building, former home to Pollak Jewelers) for $95,000. The DDA is ordering an engineering and architectural assessment of the structure's integrity to determine its current state.

Demolitionists say the building's ruined interior is reason enough to raze the building. Preservationists counter that a demolition of the interior would have to be done for any new occupant, so its current state is inconsequential to its renovation.

Tom Roberts is an architect with Gunn Levine Architects in Detroit and a lifelong Wyandotte resident. He is an expert on historic renovation, serving as a board member of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and was named as the American Institute of Architect's Young Architect of the Year for Detroit in 2008.

He did an assessment of the Mellus in 2007 and says even though renovation appears intimidating at first look to a layman, it's not bad as far as old buildings go. He would pin restoration costs between $100,000-$200,000, $250,000 at the absolute most to make it leaseable.

"It's a great example of that 1920s, 30s art deco architecture," Roberts says. "It's not in the best shape but not one of the worst I have seen either. It's a great building in a strong urban landscape in a great historic downtown."

Downtown Lincoln Park

Downtown Wyandotte is what most people think of when asked about vibrant downtowns in the Downriver area. Lincoln Park isn't mentioned nearly as often in those conversations, but it could be if it played its cards right.

The downtown stretches along several blocks of Fort, with its main intersection at Southfield Road. Much of downtown's building stock (mostly one- or two-stories tall) is intact and densely packed with the built-to-the-lot-line storefronts of traditional downtowns. Plenty of parking is available behind the stores, but not enough to create large swaths of intimidating surface parking lots that cut off the business district from the surrounding dense neighborhoods. A number of boutiques, an independent book seller, bike shop, gym, and restaurants make their homes there.

However, downtown Lincoln Park isn't without its challenges. There are also a number of vacant storefronts, including most of the block that the Mellus sits on. A large grass median bisects Fort, in essence dividing the city center and creating a large pedestrian obstacle to an otherwise walkable downtown. The opportunities to create lofts above storefronts or bring more residents to downtown are few and far between.

Visiting downtown Lincoln Park, however, one gets the feeling that the right spark could ignite some vibrancy, something comparable to Ferndale, Ypsilanti or Wyandotte's resurgence. The city boasts the kind of organic and historic downtown that cities like Warren and Novi are struggling to build from scratch and that Eastpointe once had and now covets.

Lynch-Wilson sees that spark as turning the Mellus building into a small-business incubator for retail businesses. Such an approach would give new entrepreneurs a small space (as small as 10 by 10 feet) to open a business cheaply. The idea has worked well in Detroit, where Good Girls Go to Paris Crepes started in a 46-square-foot space in downtown. Its owner is now expanding to two new locations, in Midtown and Grosse Pointe, and has her eye on other vibrant downtowns in Metro Detroit.

Bella Rosie (a women's clothing store) and HookEast
(an animation advertising start-up) are growing in Liberty Plaza, a privately held building that operates almost exactly like a incubator, in downtown Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor SPARK and TechTown’s business incubator offices in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit are crown jewels in their respective downtowns. Wyandotte also bought and is transforming an old Masonic Temple into an incubator for artists.

The biggest example of turning a blight into a business incubator is the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit, where a stereotypically rundown Rustbelt factory is being transformed into a breeding ground for dozens of artists and small business of all shapes and stripes.

Duchane also likes the business incubator idea, but doesn't think the Mellus is the best place for it. He points out there are plenty of other buildings with retail possibilities in downtown.

"The problem with it is, whose money and where is it going to be used?" Duchane says. "I have great ideas but I'm not picking up the bill. I have great ideas for other people but not the capital to do it."

The Isle of Misfit Buildings

Metro Detroit has experienced more than its share of triumphs and failures of finding uses for misfit buildings.

The most glaring examples can be found in downtown Detroit. There is the stunning rehabilitation of the Book Cadillac Hotel (a building once in much worse shape than the Mellus) after it sat vacant, rotting and abandoned for decades. It went from a glaring reminder of the city's rich past and how far it had fallen to a showpiece for its rebirth and creative innovation.

There is also the old Hudson's the department store building. It sat empty and abandoned for a little more than a decade before its implosion became a YouTube hit. The hole that is still left in the urban fabric where it once stood is almost as big as the metro area's psyche of loss.

But the Mellus isn't the Book Cadillac or Hudson's. It is however, a small building that plays a significant role in helping make Lincoln Park, Lincoln Park. And it's teetering on the brink of oblivion. There are plenty of other examples of similar misfit buildings in suburban downtowns that have made it back from the brink and become assets once again.

The 401 N Main St. building in downtown Royal Oak had fallen into disrepair and went through several redevelopment efforts that didn't pan out before being condemned by the city in 2007. The demolition contractor had been hired, scheduled a date and even parked a dumpster next to it before the shear tenacity of preservationists led to one last-ditch effort to save it. They facilitated its transfer to a new owner a few days before its schedule razing, and it's now about to open as the latest addition to Royal Oak’s bustling downtown.

"There is all this lip service to being green today," says Jim Schneider, a Royal Oak-based architect who advocated for the preservation of 401 N Main and designed its renovation. "It makes more sense to keep it up than tear it down and throw it in a dumpster."

The current home to Mt. Clemens' River of Glass glass blowing studio/shop is another example. The 1950s-era gas station on the edge of downtown Mt. Clemens had become abandoned, boarded up and blighted in recent years. The spilled automotive fluid and old rusting tanks filled with gas, oil and who knows what else made the property almost undevelopable and a prime candidate for the wrecking ball.

Arthur Mullen, executive director of the Mt. Clemens Downtown Development Authority, didn't want to see that happen, but he didn't want it to remain a blight either. His office put out a request for proposals for the site, which didn't bring back much of a response. However, that did buy the building a long enough stay of execution for Mullen to find the River of Glass business to turn it into a funky boutique.

"We thought if it became a vacant lot it would be a vacant lot for a long time," Mullen says. "It's better to have a low-paying taxpayer there in a small structure than nothing."

He points out that maintaining structures to make up a community's sense of place and character is important. Getting rid of historic buildings also takes away the newly rewritten brownfield and historic tax credits that, when combined, can reduce a project's cost to a developer by almost 50 percent. But almost in the same breath, he adds that not all buildings can be saved.

"I think its important that if you knock down something you need something ready to go up in its place," Mullen says. "A lot of communities will knock a building down because they don't know what to do with it. I think retaining the building retains flexibility for future development."

Running out of options

When asked to name the buildings that give Lincoln Park its character, Duchane lists those at the front of the line to be torn down: the historic Park Theatre and the Mellus, which also happen to be the ones the Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance is making the most noise about.

The Park Theatre is one of those classic downtown movie theaters sporting a large marque with its name in big letters. It was designed in 1925 by famed architect C. Howard Crane, who also designed the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit. The Park Theatre served as a center for entertainment for decades before falling on hard times and becoming a porn palace in the 1980s. The unsavory business finally closed its doors recently and the city has lined up an investor to redevelop the site.

The Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency plans to raze the structure to build a mixed-use development that Duchane has advocated for and most any metro Detroit downtown would welcome. The multi-story structure would have ground floor retail with residential units above, bringing more people to downtown. It fits into Duchane's vision of downtown as having an "openness, freshness, modern looking" appearance. The developer hopes to break ground this fall.

The Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance is advocating that the Park Theater be redeveloped as an entertainment venue so it can serve as a draw for other businesses. Lynch-Wilson points out how high-profile downtowns like Birmingham, Royal Oak, Farmington, Ferndale and Ann Arbor preserved their historic downtown theaters, landmarks critical to the success they enjoy today.

But Lynch-Wilson admits that, at least, the city has a plan for the site. On the other hand, while the city has committed to purchasing the Mellus and reassessing its structural integrity, there are no plans to put out a request for proposals on redeveloping it or letting the world know of its availability. The idea is to hold the vacant land for parking now, with possible future redevelopment later.

City leadership also appears to be uninterested in "pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars" into renovating it, according to Lincoln Park's Mayor Frank Vaslo. Ironically, however, the city will easily end up spending six figures to acquire and demolish a structure that will then no longer produce taxes.

Vaslo, a proponent of the demolition of the Mellus, practically dares Lynch-Wilson and her fellow preservation advocates to step up financially and do something with it or get out of the way. However, that comes off as disingenious if the city isn't willing to truly see what interest something like a request for proposals might generate. Vaslo points out that its been available for years and there haven't been any takers.

"How long does a community wait?" Vaslo says.

Lynch-Wilson counters that it hasn't been marketed well. She says she has never even seen a for-sale sign on it and word really hasn't gotten around about it beyond Lincoln Park. She mentions putting her own feelers out there and getting a couple of nibbles, including from a coffee shop and art gallery.

"I probably have done more to market that building than anyone else has," Lynch-Wilson says.

Danny Carden, a laid off truck driver from Monroe, is interested in opening a coffee shop in the Mellus. He didn't know it was available until recently and thinks downtown Lincoln Park is a prime opportunity for an independent coffee shop because it's considered such a hidden gem.

"I am definitely interested in the Mellus Building," Carden says. "It's a funky, artistic building that would work well."

The Mellus also caught Birmingham resident Laura Deljanin's attention. She runs art gallery-style events all over Metro Detroit and wants to open an art gallery in Lincoln Park. The former resident, who still has family in the area, didn't know the Mellus was available until she recently saw an ad for it on Craigslist. 

A self-described historic buildings buff, Deljanin loves its story and its historic charm. She has been through the building and isn't scared by its condition. Its disrepair actually excites her because of the possibilities it presents.

"We're too much of a disposable society," Deljanin says. "Instead of fixing something it's too easy to turn it into a parking lot. I think fixing something like the Mellus could help turn Lincoln Park into a vaible community."

The chances of that idea becoming a reality seem less and less likely though with each passing day. In this battle it seems like the city's good but less-than-creative intentions has the edge to win out over Lincoln Park's Preservation Alliance's vision for the Mellus.

"The Mellus building is a really neat building," Lynch-Wilson says. "What makes it historically significant is the Fort Street facade with the original curved windows at the door. If it were restored and lit up it would be a big beautiful attraction for Lincoln Park."


Jon Zemke is the News Editor for metromode and its sister publication, Concentrate. His last feature was Downtown and Underground. The Detroit resident's two favorite projects in his neighborhood in Midtown are the renovation of the Forest Arms Apts and the preservation/demolition/new building of the Woodward Garden Block.

Photos:

Lincoln Park City Manager, Steve Duchane

Mellus Newspapers Bldg

Southfield at Fort Rd

National City Bank closed its doors in 2007 at the Historic Lincoln Park Bank

Currently, many vacant store fronts along Fort Street are up for lease

Michigan Suburb Alliance meeting

Historic Park Theatre

Leslie Lynch-Wilson, president of the Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance

Historic photo of the Mellus News Papers Bldg

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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