Hilberry to become part of Midtown 'jazz hub'

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Don't be alarmed: The Hilberry Theatre isn't being threatened by any wrecking balls. The stately theater is to remain. The patrons who valet park at Mario's and wander down to Cass Avenue will still be welcomed. But big changes are afoot.

The plan is to make the venerable building part of a larger development taking up much of the Cass side of the block. It's something the university has been talking about for some time, originally called the Hillberry Gateway Project. The idea is to built a state-of-the-art performance center, at least after they move the Mackenzie House out of the way. (The university never particularly liked that building to begin with, and wanted to demo it in 1975 to build a beautiful new sewer connection for a development that's since been razed.) 

The problem with making this glass-and-brick dream a reality was that the money wasn't there. Enter heiress and jazz supporter Gretchen Valade, benefactor of the Detroit Jazz Festival and owner of Grosse Pointe Farm's Dirty Dog Jazz CafĂ©: She's kicking in a cool $7.5 million to help transform the Hilberry Gateway into a complex whose mission includes jazz.

Of course, jazz will be just a part of the deal, though it's not a bad fit, since Wayne State University has its fair share of jazzers in its music education programs. The new theater will have a "thrust stage" that juts out into the audience, and will be tricked out with the latest technologies, allowing for much more than mere jazz.

Unfortunately, the design of the building seems a little ... perfunctory? It appears in the original Free Press story from last year. It's a rendering from a study for the project by TMP Architecture of Bloomfield Hills. It's one of those postmodern buildings that zigs this way and that, with a glass cube breaking out on the second floor, and a streetwall of glass and "green space." The original plans had also involved turning the HIlberry into a "black box" performance space, which is sort of unusual when you consider the 100-year-old building could end up housing a space that could be, essentially, anywhere. 

But dowdy old buildings simply can't compete with Wayne State University's mania for the new. One almost begins to wonder if there's any development that seems ill-fitting or questionable to the college's development planners, especially when one of our local elites feels like tossing a few million dollars at a project. (Conceivably, you could imagine the university brass getting behind a project to use $10 million in donations from the Faygo heirs to tweak a planned Classical Music Center at Selden and Second into the MMWCL Juggalo Performance and Conference Center.)

Call it the Ann Arborization of the Cass Corridor. Taken to the extreme, it would wipe away what made the neighborhood interesting, all the little buildings and the quirky missions of the individual proprietors and owners, all the things that often make a walk down the street so interesting there. But quaint ideas about pedestrian pleasures and historic architecture will likely be swept impatiently out of the way. Midtown will be increasingly be a place where people walk with traffic on one side and a doorless wall of frosted glass on the other, with no messy Victorian houses to detract from the splendors of cut-rate institutional architecture. 

Don't get me wrong: It's easy to understand why everybody is so excited about a new development: For years Detroit been demolition central, a place where the only things going up have been "TO BE DEMOLISHED" signs. And it's great to see that story turn around. But, at a certain point, do we as Detroiters begin to demand a little bit more? To look at a design and ask if it's the best that can be done? To ask what it contributes to the street life of a neighborhood?

The truth is, most of the people covering development and architecture in Detroit are actually business reporters. They love any new development. They write their articles straight from press releases. Take a look at the way Brian McCollum breathlessly covers the proposed Hilberry transformation in the Free Press: McCollum excitedly declares "the venue will be a teeming jazz hub." (Was "officials envision a teeming jazz hub" too timid, or does McCollum have a functioning crystal ball?) 

But are we reaching a certain tipping point where we demand a little more from our new buildings than promises that they will teem with life? Where we look at a renderings of happy people walking down a re-imagined street and ask ourselves: Would I want to walk there? 


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