By Michael F. Carmichael
April 28, 2011
For more than a century steam has been flowing beneath the streets of Detroit - as it has many other cities (albeit more recently) including Washington D.C., New York, Boston and others. Steam or chilled water or some other heat transfer system has been saving building owners the added expense of having their own boilers or chillers to heat or cool their buildings. In many cases, such as in Washington, taxpayers own those buildings.
This kind of sustainable energy system is called “district energy” as it provides its services to buildings within a specifically defined physical area.
In the case of Detroit that area includes another specifically defined physical area - the Detroit Entertainment District. There you’ll find Ford Field, the domed home of the Detroit Lions, the Gem Theatre, the Detroit Opera House and a host of classic buildings once called the “lost buildings of Detroit” that are being renovated for tenants ready - and waiting - to move in.
Does all of this activity in a city many had abandoned indicate not only a trend but also a template for other “rust belt” cities that have been in decline as the country’s manufacturing base has moved elsewhere? Will an “entertainment district” help lead the way to a reinvention of a vibrant downtown - the key to keeping the creative class, younger entrepreneurs and existing businesses from continuing to flee? The signs are positive.
Visionary global business and civic leaders are bringing their headquarters in from suburban office parks and locating either in new LEED-certified buildings or the greenest of all structures - those that are already built. Developers are bringing those classic buildings back to life - and using the sustainable power available to them - to attract new retailers and provide contemporary affordable housing stock to make it possible for the downtown core to become walkable and livable once again.
David Di Rita is one of those developers. His company is partnering with others to restore the David Whitney building, a 19 story office tower that was designed by Daniel Burnham and completed in 1915.
Why “restore” and not start from scratch? “Anybody who would wonder about that hasn’t been in the David Whitney building!” Di Rita says emphatically. “There’s a four story terra cotta atrium, the upstairs hallways are marble-lined - it’s a truly unique building. Part and parcel of what we’re doing is to preserve as much of that as we possibly can.”
The result will be a mixed use project that will provide the kind of ingredients that experts say are key to restarting a downtown in decline - moderately-priced rental housing, a national boutique hotel, a variety of restaurants and retail.
Also critical is access to rapid transit - and Detroit is once again poised to build a light rail line that may eventually reach out to its northern suburbs.
Existing entertainment properties, such as Michigan Opera Theatre, are actively promoting major productions. Ford Field is to be home to global soccer competition as well as sold-out national tours of major entertainment acts.
In Detroit the Entertainment District is closely allied with other similar groups - such as the University Corridor, the Woodward Avenue Action Association, the University Cultural Center and even the Michigan Suburbs Alliance - to coordinate activities, grant-seeking and general economic development.
Will the idea of everyone involved pulling together rather than working separately finally work to revive a flagging downtown? Can Detroit become a national model for reversing a decades-long trend outward to increased suburban sprawl? Perhaps it will take a combination of cooperation, vision, an acceptance of sustainable building practices and energy use such as district energy - and $5-$6 per gallon gas to make it happen.