Razing the Roof

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The Verona Apartments on West Ferry at Cass, shortly after completion in 1896. At the time, Ferry was a dirt road. If a developer gets his way, the Verona will be leveled.

At her office in the Queen Anne-style 1895 Mackenzie House on Cass near Hancock in Detroit, Susan Mosey is surrounded by history — and the constant reminder that it could be erased. The home, which was in danger of being demolished in the 1970s, is the former residence of David Mackenzie, founder of the College of the City of Detroit, now Wayne State University.

As president of the University Cultural Center Association (UCCA), Mosey wants to preserve the architectural distinction of Midtown Detroit, yet she’s not averse to development. In fact, she says UCCA, a group dedicated to enhancing Midtown, welcomes it as a sign of the area’s vitality.

But she thinks one developer’s plans a few blocks north of her office aren’t in keeping with the neighborhood’s character. The project calls for razing older buildings so that new student housing can be built. Her organization spearheaded an effort to declare the area — which includes 20 buildings on West Kirby, Ferry, and Palmer, as well as on Cass on the west and most of Woodward on the east — a local historic district. Doing so would make it difficult, though not impossible, to level buildings in the district. If the Detroit City Council approves the historic-district resolution, any demolition plans would need to be approved by the Detroit Historic District Commission. Developers interested in rehabbing buildings in the proposed district would also receive State of Michigan tax credits. A current moratorium bans demolition in the affected area until the City Council hands down its decision, which could come this month. That vote will be preceded by a public hearing in which all parties can argue their cases.

At issue is a plan by the Rochester Hills-based Campus Village Communities (CVC) to demolish four buildings it owns in order to build a single, 12-story building for student housing. The project specifies 98 units for about 325 students with commercial space on the ground floor. Parking is included, though not for every tenant. The format includes four-bedroom units, with each student having his or her own bedroom and bath but sharing a kitchen and living area, which the developer says provides a low-cost housing alternative.

CVC owns or operates 3,040 rental units around campuses in Michigan and Ohio. All but 41 are student housing. The company, which began acquiring property around Wayne State in 2002, owns nine buildings in the proposed district, and is not affiliated with Wayne State.

The university owns some properties in the affected area, including the 1894-era Beecher House, notable for its Tiffany window, and the Bowen House, erected in 1912. However, Mosey says the school is not involved in the fray. “They aren’t taking a position for or against the district,” she says.

But Mosey certainly is. “It would dwarf the scale of the neighborhood,” she says of the proposed structure. “New development is fine, but we don’t feel this is the appropriate location. It’s one of the few special areas we have left where you get the feel of the original historic nature of the neighborhood.

“We’re certainly for new development, and a huge amount of our time is spent pursuing it,” she says. “But we do like to see older and newer buildings co-exist in a way that’s complementary. This isn’t.”

But CVC owner Ernie Schaefer says the very idea of calling the district — which includes edifices built from 1886 to 1991 — “historic” is flawed. Although most of the structures there date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a few are of more recent vintage, including the Detroit Historical Museum, erected in 1951. “It’s a historic district that spans more than 100 years, and that doesn’t make any sense at all,” Schaefer says.

Additionally, he says Wayne State’s plan to build a new business school on Woodward, which borders the proposed district, will further clash with architectural styles. “It will be this little island of old, derelict housing surrounded by new architecture.”

However, the 1991 building he cites — the Wayne State University School of Mortuary Science — is a “non-contributing” edifice, says Deborah Goldstein, historic preservation planner for the City of Detroit’s Historic Designation Advisory Board. Three structures in the proposed district are “non-contributing,” which, Goldstein says, “means that they aren’t contributing in terms of the district’s historical or architectural significance.”

In a letter sent to the city Advisory Board, the law firm of Hongiman, Miller, Schwartz, and Cohn, which represents CVC, called the proposed district “a varied hodgepodge of modern and historic structures without a common theme, time period, or style to unite them.”

Goldstein disagrees. “The history in the area is layered. It’s not just one period, it’s several, and it shows the development process,” she says. The City Council tasked her department with researching the area’s history and architectural significance after UCCA approached council in 2008 with its request. After preparing a preliminary report, followed by a public hearing at Detroit’s Scarab Club in February, the board drafted a final report, which recommended historic designation. But exactly when the council ruling will come is tough to pin down, Goldstein says.

“It could be in May, but it’s at their discretion,” she says. “They may see reasons to hold it up, or they may want the Advisory Board to broker a meeting,” she says. On the other hand, “They could act in the next session after the hearing.”

 

The proposed district includes three buildings already on the National Register of Historic Places: the Verona Apartments on Ferry and Cass, built between 1894-96; the Joy House, built in 1897 at Cass and Kirby as a private residence for railroad magnate James Joy; and the Belcrest Apartments, erected in 1926 as a luxury residential hotel and designed by Detroit architect Charles Agree, who’s also responsible for the Whittier Towers and Vanity Ballroom on the city’s east side. Of these, only the Verona is imperiled, along with two apartment buildings on Cass and a small restaurant on Palmer, all of which CVC owns.

But the federal designation “has no teeth in terms of demolition, unless [the building’s occupants] are receiving federal funds,” Mosey says. “That’s why we’re going for the local designation, because the demolition plans have to be reviewed first.”

The Romanesque-style Verona originally had 16 large units, but was later subdivided into 26 apartments. From 1965-67, one of the two top-floor apartments was home to then-fledgling folksinger Joni Mitchell, and her husband, Chuck.

Schaefer says he already spent $600,000 rehabbing the Verona, but he says that building, along with several others he owns, are too dated and dilapidated to be renovated. Even the attraction of tax credits isn’t enough of a lure, he says.

“We did the economic analysis, and the numbers just don’t work out,” he says. “There’s tremendous energy loss, safety issues, and so on. If you’re going to redo those buildings, you’ve got to completely strip them. Then, there’s the problem of parking.”

But one neighborhood newcomer is undeterred by tackling such problems. At press time, Greg Cheesewright, president of Bingham Farms-based Computech Corp., was preparing to move his software company into the renovated James Joy House by late April. He bought the yellow-brick Italian Renaissance building last year “for just over $100,000” from the Detroit Historical Museums. It was built in 1897 for about $18,000. Cheesewright also has sunk a good deal of money into rehabbing the house.

“We had to gut the whole thing — electrical, HVAC, almost everything,” he says. “We put on a new roof, we put in 59 new windows, but we’re trying to keep the architectural integrity intact on the exterior.”

Cheesewright thinks his investment in the neighborhood is worth it.

“We have to retain the historical value of Detroit by renovating, not watching buildings deteriorate.” he says. “It’s no good sitting back and bitching about how the city is falling apart. We’re doing something about it. And we like the fact that we’re so close to Wayne State, TechTown, and the cultural life of the city. This is a very vibrant place to be.”

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