In Detroit, dreams of civic renewal collide with hard realities

DETROIT Wed Nov 2, 2011 4:49pm EDT

The abandoned Michigan Central Station is seen in Detroit, Michigan April 5, 2011.  REUTERS/Eric Thayer

The abandoned Michigan Central Station is seen in Detroit, Michigan April 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Eric Thayer

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DETROIT (Reuters) - For years, Michigan Central Station, the towering train depot on the outskirts of downtown Detroit, stood as a haunting symbol of the city's decline and fall.

The last train pulled out of the station in 1988, shortly before the Honda Accord became the best-selling car in America, a humbling milestone for the city and its top industry.

In the intervening years, as the Big Three struggled to pick themselves up, vandals and the elements ravaged the depot. Architect Lis Knibbe says walking into the main waiting room, with its 60-foot vaulted ceilings and its graffiti-covered, water-damaged walls, was like "entering a Roman ruin."

Many locals were less kind. "It's been the most prominent eyesore in the city, a symbol of what's wrong," said John Gallagher, author of the book "Reimagining Detroit."

Now, as a tentative rebound by the city's automakers fuels talk of a Motor City renaissance, the 600,000-square-foot depot -- which is undergoing a multimillion-dollar cleanup -- is seen by some as a hopeful symbol of Detroit's renewal.

"If we can completely rehab the Michigan Central Station and make it vibrant, with people running in and out of it, then we would have proved that anything can be done in Detroit," said Matthew Moroun, whose family bought it in the mid-1990s.

But others are skeptical Detroit can put decades of neglect and abandonment behind it. And they question whether the flurry of activity at the depot is anything to celebrate. For them, the station continues to be a symbol of the hubris that preceded Detroit's downfall and the inconvenient realities that stand between the city and its dreams of a comeback.

"It's not clear that Detroit is going to make it," said Kenneth T. Jackson, a professor of urban history at Columbia University who has studied the rise and fall of U.S. cities. "I'm pulling for it. But it's not a gimme."

ENCOURAGING SIGNS

There are, to be sure, some encouraging signs of renewal. The two automakers forced into bankruptcy in 2009 -- General Motors and Chrysler -- are back on their feet. Together with Ford, they are regaining market share and hiring workers.

Several suburban-based businesses, including Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Michigan, have moved downtown, bringing thousands of workers with them. One of the latest was Quicken Loans, a company whose CEO, Dan Gilbert, is a native son and an energetic champion of what he calls "Detroit 2.0."

Andy Farbman, the president of the Farbman Group, a real estate company with an extensive portfolio in Detroit, compares Gilbert to Felix Rohatyn, the banker credited with helping New York City steer its way out of its fiscal woes in the 1970s.

"Danny's a billionaire with a mission and a plan who wants to be part of saving the city," Farbman said.

"He controls all these jobs and employs all these younger professionals who want to be in a 24-hour city."

Long-shelved residential loft projects are coming back to life; the occupancy rate for existing downtown apartments is close to 100 percent. The city's appeal for young, creative types, who can live here for a fraction of what they'd pay in Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, is growing, too.

Then there are the city's football and baseball teams. Both were league laughingstocks a few years ago, with the Lions -- who went 0-16 in the 2008 season -- especially hard to watch.

This year, the Tigers nearly claimed baseball's American League pennant and the Lions won the first five games of the season, their best start in 55 years.

OFF THE MAT?

"There's a sense that Detroit is no longer on the mat," said Gallagher, whose book looks at renewal efforts in other cities, including Dresden, Germany, and Seoul, South Korea. His conclusion: second acts are tough but possible.

Gallagher and others see Detroit 2.0 as a smaller city, powered by a diverse mix of industries and centered on the handful of neighborhoods that have survived the hollowing out.

Implementing the vision of a scaled-back Detroit, of course, would require controversial policy-making, with officials choosing neighborhood winners and losers and funneling dollars into those deemed viable. Gallagher admits it would be painful. But he says the status quo is painful, too. "A lot of areas are not winning right now," he said.

But even the most slimmed-down dreams face harsh realities in Detroit, which lost 25 percent of its population over the past 10 years, according to the U.S. Census, accelerating a trend that has left nearly a third of the city vacant.

Those who remain are twice as likely to live in poverty and 50 percent more likely to be unemployed than the average American.

And Detroit remains a remarkably unhealthy place to live, with one of the nation's highest homicide rates, according to the FBI, and one of the highest lung cancer mortality rates in the country.

Even trends the boosters tout, like the rise in urban farming, strike others as proof of the city's woes.

"In economics, we generally consider agriculture to be the lowest value use of land," said David Albouy of the University of Michigan. "So the fact that the land is going back to agriculture is a sign of how little people want to live there."

NO DENIAL

No one denies the city has its problems. "If you want to focus on the negatives in Detroit, there is a list with hundreds of examples you can point to," said Moroun, whose family did little with the depot until this year, when it found itself in a high-stakes fight over the Ambassador Bridge.

"Our idea with the depot is take it off that list."

So far, the family, whose net worth is estimated to be $1.5 billion by Forbes, has spent $1 million on repairs. Moroun says they plan to spend that much again over the next year replacing broken windows and leaky roofs at the depot.

A top-to-bottom renovation is not in the cards for now, he says, because the family has no idea how to make the depot commercially viable.

"We don't have a business projection that proves that we can completely redevelop the thing, put a bunch of people in it and make money right away," Moroun said.

"But we also don't have a plan to let it sit there and continue to decay, either."

Some worry the family's sudden interest in the depot is temporary, designed to curry public favor while the Morouns fight over the fate of the Ambassador, the family-owned toll bridge that links Detroit to Windsor, Canada.

JEWEL IN THE CROWN

The Ambassador is a money maker, the jewel in the Moroun family crown. But it's now in jeopardy because of a proposal, backed by the state of Michigan and the government of Canada, to build a new publicly owned international bridge.

The repairs on the depot have coincided with an expensive, Moroun-supported ad campaign opposing the public bridge as a boondoggle. If the family wins the bridge fight, skeptics wonder, will the work on the depot stop?

"Whether or not it is an attempt to divert attention from the bridge debacle, we don't know," said Gallagher.

The money needed for a full-restoration would be staggering, even for the Morouns. Architect Knibbe, who was involved in the renovation of the Book Cadillac building downtown and consults on the depot, estimates the cost would be "significantly more" than the $200 million spent on the Book Cadillac.

So, like Charlotte Street in New York City's South Bronx in the 1970s, Michigan Central Station remains a convenient backdrop for people drawing attention to urban distress, not urban renewal. The latest to come here was Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, who stood in front of the depot to promote his 9-9-9 tax plan.

If the money needed to renovate the depot seems staggering, the money already spent trying to renew Detroit is more staggering still. Susan Mosey, the head of Midtown Detroit, a nonprofit working to revitalize the city's Woodward Corridor, says $2.4 billion has been poured into that neighborhood alone over the past 10 years -- and the work is nowhere near done.

Whether such outlays will continue as the country struggles to recover from the economic bust and avoid a second recession is unclear. But Mosey says without a continued investment, Detroit's renewal may wither.

"This is a very large piece of geography and it was severely disinvested," she said. "So the cost of the rebuild is tremendous."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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