Category Archives: Buy this Brownfield!

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:

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In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.

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The Wayne County Government Building

Believe it or not, this building is for sale:

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Wayne County Courthouse from the back

If I were Bill Gates, I’d make this my second home.

 

Descent

As I descended into Detroit, I realized I’d lucked out with my window seat. As we flew west, I looked north to this view of the city of Detroit and nearby Windsor:

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When I looked out the window to take this picture, I put down my book, Detroit: A Biography by Scott Martelle. I had literally just finished the astounding story of alcohol being smuggled across this river during Prohibition. Martelle writes:

“…providentially it must have seemed, wartime prohibition laws across the river in Canada ended on January 1, 1920, a little more than two weeks before the American booze spigot was officially shut off” (Martelle, 104).

Powerful forces across this area of America looked to Detroit and the potential for illicit trade just across the Detroit River. There is no estimate for the extent of this underground empire, but both sides of the river saw a new market for rapid growth. And then I read about how this market, artificially created by a constitutional amendment, began to change the lives of locals.

Martelle writes,

“The smuggling business was so good that Canadian farmers gave up spring planting in favor of rum-running, letting their fields on the south side of the river lie fallow as they moved booze across the river in small launches.”

Everything changed in two weeks for the liquor export business in Windsor and the traditional way of life was left for new enterprise. And then I thought, this whole city has become like a fallow field: left for new opportunities and markets.

Detroit was planted, the city was carefully nourished and developed, and then it was left with no regard for heritage or tradition. The money ran dry (or ran away) and the people left with it. I guess, as much as you love a place, you have to feed yourself and your family. Even if you had a job you might have feared for your life. Detroit became a loser, a bad bet, and an unstable place to live:

“In March 2011, the US Census reported that the population of Detroit…had dropped to 714,000 people, down by a quarter-million since 2000 and by more than 1.1 million people from its peak of 2.8 million residents in 1950…” (Martelle, XII).

As Windsor plodded along at a casual, Canadian pace, Detroit rose to global fame and fell to national shame.

Today, people are overcoming the stigma that descended upon Detroit all those years ago and realizing there is still much to love. I’m amazed by the beauty and drama of the buildings and the potential of the space around them. And I’m not just squinting my eyes and using my imagination.

I don’t know what’s next for Detroit, but I’m glad to be here to see it unfold. The descent has been devastating and has left a shell of a place. I don’t know what Detroit can become without heavy industry, but creative citizens here are working to figure it out.

I’m just a tourist inspired by a story.

A is for Agricultural Urbanism

Tricycle Gardens is a local organization that has taken to transforming parking lots and empty space into beautiful, collaborative, and interactive green space. Dhiru Thadani would describe their work as specifically: Community Gardens, Allotment Gardens, and Container Gardens. I usually describe them as fun for everyone. Here are some examples:

This is the first post in my, “Cataloguing Richmond,” series saved in “RVA.”

New Term: Grand Obsolescence

The term is usually “planned obsolescence,” but the word “planned” doesn’t exactly apply to what our cities look like today. So Grand Obsolescence is the term I guess I’ll to describe the spaces in our cities that have beed deemed worthless and discarded. Just like your iPhone 3 when the new one came out.

A Walmart was built on a highway in Tyler and surrounded by acres of asphalt. Then, Walmart built a supercenter right down the road and left this building to anyone that wants to spend the money to retrofit a warehouse. Thanks Walmart! The parking lot is now (obviously) underperforming asphalt and the building is vacant. The reality is: multi-nationals don’t have any concern for the long-term well-being of a city … they just need to make money. It’s up to the city to look out for itself and to prevent stymie process. The problem is usually a weak planning function and a city council that can only see $$$ with each new development. The result is cities that Kunstler says simply “aren’t worth caring about.” Of course, there is still plenty to care about, but the problem is that you have to drive farther to get to them. And even then … it’s still not usually impressive.

Maybe, we drive so fast we don’t notice these vacant buildings or maybe we just have low expectations. Maybe because our cities grow outward we don’t feel the need to look inward. All I know is, it ain’t pretty and we can do better.

Buy this Brownfield: Tyler Ice House

The coolest building in Tyler has trees growing in it. If you’re like me, you’ve seen it before. If you’ve lived in or visited the Salvation Army, you might have stumbled upon it. Otherwise the area is probably one big blank spot on your mental map of Tyler.

Check it out on  Google maps. I first found this building years ago while exploring North Tyler. When I found it, I couldn’t believe I was in the same city. It was one of those”WHAT IS THIS” moments that I have on occasion. From the road, the building is impossible to understand. The first think you notice is that it’s huge, old and derelict. The outside of the building is this weird cross between a Tex-Mex Restaurant stucco façade and a 1900s industrial frame. The primary door (right) is relatively ornate for an old ice house and a reminder that there was a time when people cared about details.  From what I can tell, besides the materials there is also nothing really uniform about the design. Which is perfect. Buy this brownfield. It could be literally be the coolest “whatever you want” in Tyler.

Because the space has the potential for such a wide variety of uses, I decided to choose my five favorite options. Four are long-term options and the fifth one is my “Hail Mary” option that would at least create some temporary attraction and breathe new life into the space.

Option #1: Concert Venue. You could do this tomorrow! All you would have to do is secure the area, hang a light canopy from the walls, spray some Roundup, and get an electricity hookup. The actual venue would be housed in the cavernous great room (left). It is reminiscent of an industrial cathedral with rusting machinery, an I-beam frame, and a large floor space. Recently, I walked into the space and got that sense of wonder I get when I see something that was once great. When you first walk into the space (beware of the three dogs that chased us out … seriously), you feel a sense of grandeur that can only come from an old factory brownfield. Instead of supporting the ceiling, the old steel beams rise into the air to the sky itself. There is some leftover from the industrial era, but otherwise most of this great room has been cleared away making it a perfect place to set up chairs and blankets for a life concert under the stars.

Option #2: Artist Collective and Gallery. This idea incorporates the mission of “creative placemaking” which seeks to attract creative people to improve a building or neighborhood. This plan would incorporate two parts: A retrofit of the great hall into a gallery and a renovation into the rest of the building into studios and apartments. For the great hall, imagine The Tate Modern on a significantly smaller scale. It would be industrial, expansive and equally stunning. With a glass dome spanning the distance between the walls and a canopy of lights it would be the coolest art space in Tyler. The great hall was made to showcase art. The two-story southern half of the building (pictured below) is large enough to fit 20 or so studios for local artists who desire an inspirational setting for their projects. I’ll admit this section needs a lot of work, but someone with a vision and some money could invite the right people to make it an incredible success.

Option #3: Urban Farm and Fresh Produce Market. This project could be a particularly good fit because the entire lot includes both a large amount of land and a large building on the street. The land surrounding the building could be an excellent urban farm and garden. There’s enough room to grow crops as well as concept gardens for visitors. This vacant land  is currently being used for auto repair, but I don’t think there much physical infrastructure associated with the shop. The owner of the business (and the dogs) would probably be able to find another vacant lot in N. Tyler … I can think of a few. If the land were converted into a farm and garden, the building itself would be converted into greenhouses, market space and apartments for the farming community. In contrast to the current farmer’s markets in Tyler, this would be a permanent space completely devoted to the growing, sharing, and selling of good food. In addition, the location of this farm would be strategic in connecting the surrounding neighborhoods with fresh vegetables and weekly workshops on nutrition, agriculture and entrepreneurship.

Option #4: Offices for an Urban Development Firm. Usually, it takes a very creative and ambitious firm with a lot of money and confidence to retrofit something like this building. As such, it would be the perfect flagship for a pioneering architectural firm in Tyler. Is there one? I’m not sure, but if there is one I would consider applying for their first entry-level job in this new space. As a flagship, it would highlight the firms ability to critically analyze the historical significance and current condition of a space and produce successful adaptive reuse solutions. There are already people doing this sort or work in Tyler, but I think they need to join forces, gather investors and convert this building. With representatives from real estate, landscape architecture, architecture, engineering and planning, this new firm could be a regional presence.

Hail Mary Option: Host a Regional Mural Conference! My last-ditch effort to start using this space is simply this: Invite artists from all over Tyler and East Texas to come for a weekend of live music, street food and live mural paintings on the property. What is now old and grey could find new life with creative people and for a moment everyone would catch a glimpse of the buildings full potential.

Check out my other Tyler projects at my Tyler, TX page!

p.s. I’ve heard the building is overpriced, but if you’re up for a challenge call Five-Star Reality at 903-561-2200. I’m sure they’d be happy to show you around.