New construction approved by the city of Detroit means downtown's Greektown Casino is poised to grow — even if it means that the actual Greektown will get a little smaller in the bargain.
This week, heavy machinery went to work tearing up the former Wayne County Sheriff's parking lot and headquarters across the alley behind Greektown. It was announced last July that the casino's holding company had acquired the land. After meeting with Detroit's City Planning Commission that month, the city agreed to rezone the parcel, allowing for the construction of a parking garage on the 1.1-acre lot behind Monroe Street.
According to planning commission minutes, Marvin Beatty, the casino's chief community liaison officer, said the new garage would allow the valet service to retrieve cars in 5-7 minutes — as opposed to the 20-30 minutes it takes them now.
To speed passage between the casino and the parking structure, the building that formerly housed the Laikon Café will be demolished so that a pedestrian tube, or skywalk, can be built over Monroe Street.
As of last year, the Laikon was open under new management and the business owner had a 10-year-lease. But a dispute over the lease ended in the business' ouster — and cleared the way for the casino to purchase the property. The building now awaits its rendezvous with the wrecking ball.
For those who've loved Greektown for its historic character, the idea of demolishing a historic building and installing a conspicuous silver tunnel over the quaint, narrow street is too much to take. One of those people is Andy Kettunen, a lawyer who lives and works downtown, and is a longtime patron of Laikon Café.
"Laikon was one of the oldest restaurants in the city, established in the 1920s. It's a tragedy to see this, especially in the city of Detroit, where it's rare to find even one block of buildings all still standing and with businesses in them. And what do they do? They're just going in and slowly dismantling it."
Public policy consultant, longtime Detroit preservationist and former Greektown resident Francis Grunow echoes these concerns. Grunow says, "It's pretty evident that the casino is driving how decisions get made in that area, and we're kind of losing what made Greektown special in Detroit: the fact that it was an intact commercial strip. ... It's basically like, the lowest common denominator development where everything must be attached to a parking structure."
Grunow isn't categorically opposed to skywalks. "I think they're part of the landscape certainly," he says. "I can understand them across Jefferson between the Renaissance Center and the Millender Center, because of the setbacks and the wide street it crosses. But this is one of the narrowest streets in Detroit, it's still full of activity because it's designed around pedestrians — and they're subverting that. They subverted it with the walkway across St. Antoine and they're subverting it with this."
Greg Moots of the City Planning Department says that plans call for the demolition of the building that the Laikon was in, installation of the skywalk, and construction of a new building beneath it. While preservationists such as Grunow are thankful that the streetwall will at least be left intact, it's unknown how well the new building will fit in with the existing architecture.
And Greektown Casino is being tight-lipped on specifics. The casino declined to comment for this story.
Even as fans of historic Greektown complain, the fact remains that, year by year, there is less to complain about because many of the Greek restaurants have finally disappeared. With the closing of New Hellas in 2008, Cyprus Taverna in 2010, and now the Laikon gone, only a handful of actual Greek restaurants remain.
The way Kettunen sees it, the slow disappearance of Greektown is the work of the casino and the city. With frustration in his voice, he says, "As far as I'm concerned, why not just tear the whole thing [Greektown] down and build a parking lot and a bunch of tubes into the buildings? That's what it seems they're going to do anyway. And it's a shame that the city of Detroit supports that kind of development."