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Archive for March, 2012

The good side

People who own buildings in Lakewood are not typically allowed to knock them down without having a replacement plan ready to go. That’s true if you want to knock down your garage, and it’s true if you own a commercial building on Detroit or Madison–or anywhere else in town, for that matter.

The reasons for that are simple: the buildings in the city provide both function and aesthetic value. Those things combine to make the city an attractive place to live and do business. And that adds up to money.

Nonetheless, despite the fact that there is no solid plan for the redevelopment of the property at Detroit and Edwards, that beige brick building –a building that was just months ago home to a chiropractor, a hair salon, and a guitar studio–is about to meet the wrecking ball. The demolition permit has been issued. The garage behind it is already gone, its broken bits hauled away in a 40-yard dumpster Buried utilities have been marked.

According to the Lakewood Building Department, the city is allowing this because the building has become a hazard. For years, under both the current and previous owner, it has been in court as the city attempted to motivate the owners to fix the problems. Citations were issued. The violations were copious. Nothing was done.

Those structural problems have made the building a hazard. The current owner—who I emphasize has owned the property less than one year—inherited the mess after his predecessors prodigiously ignored its decay.

Chunks of concrete as big as a child's leg have fallen off.

My family has lived just a few doors away for more than a decade, and on morning walks around the block we’ve seen that chunks of the cast concrete window sill—chunks as big as a child’s leg sometimes–have fallen to the sidewalk. At least no one got hit in the head.

Again, it’s important to remember: the current owner has not ignored the problem for years. He just got stuck with the responsibility when he decided Lakewood is a good place to invest.

But how did the guy before him get away with this? A look along the east and south faces of the building gives a clue as to how long it’s been: the brick walls have buckled at the level of the second floor windows. They bulge out, looking like the entire wall could fall to the sidewalk at any minute. For proof that this has been long-ignored, look up at the vinyl-siding that covers the second floor window bays. It was carefully cut to form-fit around the buckle in the wall. That siding has been in place longer than we’ve lived in the neighborhood—which means the walls have been buckled like that for almost 13 years.

The second floor window bays, with vinyl siding cut to form-fit around the buckle in the wall.

At this point, knocking this building down is probably the best anyone could hope for. It would take a historic preservationist with money to burn to make the kind of repairs it needs at this point. There may have been a time when straightening the walls would have been affordable and cost effective, but at least two owners waited far too long for that. If the building had tenants, and therefore a revenue stream, maybe a civic-minded owner might have invested the money. But all the tenants moved out amid rumors that a Taco Bell franchise would soon move there.

Maybe if some civic minded foundation built a pool of money for intervention in cases like this, some buildings that contribute to the city’s streetcar-era character could be saved. I think I’m not alone in believing that the city’s history is an important economic asset. This wasn’t a significant or distinguished building, just another minor part of the streetcar streetscape.

For all the folks who watch Lakewood commercial development, a Taco Bell at this location would have been just like the McDonalds / Detroit Theater deal: a net gain of zero businesses, with the Taco Bell just moving from its current location to the new spot, and the net loss of another streetcar era building that would have been viable if someone had taken care of it. For this particular neighborhood it would have meant a stream of late night drive through noise fueled by the bars.

But as I said before, we’re past fretting about the loss of an old building. At this point, the demolition can’t happen fast enough.

All this means Western Detroit Ave will soon have a big swath of vacant land—quite a bit larger, in fact, than the commercial building itself. The Civil War-era Hall house that once stood next to the building in question was already knocked down. Rumor has it that the old red Sinagra house North of the commercial building—which the same series of property owners have allowed to sit vacant for about a decade—will also come down soon. It’s not happening yet because it’s not a hazard to people walking by. But rest assured, as soon as a redevelopment plan materializes, that house will be gone, too.

All that’s left is A) to hope that the owner of the property finds a good business to build on what will soon be a big vacant lot; and B) that the city makes sure the new building looks like it belongs in the neighborhood.

The property owner has a tough job. There are no quaint little mom-and-pop shops with enough money for new construction on Detroit. And among businesses that seem to have enough money—the drugstore chains, the fast food giants–It’s hard to find a good fit for these densely packed neighborhoods.

The view from DQ

That’s because all along Lakewood’s main streets there are people like me who like where they live specifically because the houses and businesses are packed in so close together. We like to walk up to the corner for some butter and eggs on a Sunday morning, or up to the other corner on a Friday night to pick up a bottle of wine. We like walking to independent restaurants and hair salons, and we like it if our kids can walk to get a popsicle. And of course, being packed in like that makes it especially important that the businesses respect the neighborhood. So if it seems like people in Lakewood are always giving the main street businesses a hard time, it’s because we care about the place we live.

The latest rumor about the corner of Edwards and Detroit is that the owner is courting a bank branch to build there. A bank wouldn’t be bad at all. The architectural review board has a good record of steering builders toward construction that fits the neighborhood.

But I’d really love to hear what other people in the neighborhood and around the city think. Imagine a big vacant space—the corner plus one parcel along detroit, and the corner plus one going north on Edwards? What would you support with your good will and money?

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