It began with something so commonplace that few questioned it: Wayne State University tore down a building. In keeping with the ironic times, the old Pontiac Motors service garage and showroom at the corner of Cass and York — once a showcase for the booming car culture of postwar Detroit — was ripped down and turned into a gravel parking lot.
On its face it’s an alternately amusing and ghastly commentary on the nature of progress in the Motor City. Upon closer inspection, however, it begs a question: Why would the university spend more than $100,000 to tear down a four-story garage and replace it with a flat parking lot?
Though many inner-city Detroiters are understandably proud of Wayne State University’s commitment to the neighborhood, chagrin over the university’s status as a “commuter university” has led to spirited conflicts over whether WSU balances the needs of an increasingly car-dependent student body with the concerns of the surrounding neighborhood. The past 30 years have seen some hotly contested battles between locals and the university, often pitting neighborhood preservationists against parking lots.
Which is what makes this recent demolition so puzzling. Here was an opportunity for both camps to score a win. With the sleepy north end of Wayne State’s campus being reshaped into “Tech Town,” the university could have had a parking garage ready to go in an area primed for enterprise, and the preservationists could have saved a piece of Detroit history. A refurbished garage might have been as successful as the similarly venerable Kirby Parking Garage behind the Park Shelton, which does excellent business just six blocks away, lending its attractive facade and historical continuity to the Cultural Center. Instead, Detroit has lost both a bit of history and quite a bit of sheltered parking.
Originally built in 1924, the reinforced concrete, fireproof building was the property of the Olds Motor Works. In the 1930s, the Pontiac Motor Co. moved its service garage into the building, putting cars on display in the first-floor showroom. With its mushroom pillars and tons of concrete and rebar, the building could easily hold and service a fleet of automobiles. That must have been a major reason why Wayne State University used the structure as a motor pool building in the 1970s.
Yet, without much public discussion, the building was torn down in May. Demolition has become so commonplace that few raised an eyebrow that the university would pay $129,000 to demolish a four-story parking garage to build a lot that could hold about 50 cars and where it costs a dollar a day to park.
Nabelah Ghareeb, assistant vice president of Wayne State’s Business and Operations Division, says the parking lot would only be a temporary use for the site. Pressed further about the future of the location, Ghareeb admits there are no definite plans for what would occupy the corner lot.
Asked if the demolition was urgent, or if there was any structural danger that demanded immediate destruction, Ghareeb says there were problems with the roof or the wired glass skylight, allowing water to leak into the building. “It had been deteriorating for years,” Gareeb says.
When asked why the building had been allowed to deteriorate even though the university has owned the building since 1970, Ghareeb explains that Wayne State does try to maintain its properties but that, finally, “The university decided to turn it into a parking lot.”
She was unable to say whether any assessments or studies were done of the building’s integrity.
According to local historian Kathrine Clarkson, the loss is particularly damaging at the corner of York and Cass, in an area where a few multistory buildings lend a walkability to the neighborhood. “When you have buildings that come right up to the corner,” explains Clarkson, “it creates a balanced streetscape. With corner structures particularly, when a building comes down and a parking lot takes its place, it changes that balance. You’ve lost that sense of enclosure. …You’re losing more than your history, you’re losing your future — you’re losing the desirability of walking down that street.”
And so, where the picturesque brick curtain walls used to stand, a chain-link fence now encircles the bleak lot, which is adorned by a single parking attendant’s booth. The late summer sun peaks high overhead, reflected up from the hot white stones onto the baking cars of campus commuters. Even the parking lot attendant has wisely retreated to the thin strip of shade provided by a nearby building. The cars bake in the heat. Come winter they will be covered with snow, and Wayne State’s scholars will return to their cars and labor with brushes and scrapers to clean them off. All this for only one dollar a day.
Michael Jackman is a freelance writer from Detroit. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org