A newer New Center for Detroit -- thanks to GM

There is good news on the construction front in at least one section of Detroit, a city like many others across the country that daily battles the ugliness and despair of years of urban decay and blight.

In the New Center area, just four miles from downtown, bulldozers scoop up earth, air hammers rat-a-tat, new buildings rise, and old ones emerge with rehabilitated elegance.

The impetus to restore this business-residential neighborhood to its original glitter and glory comes mainly from its largest resident, General Motors. GM has dominated the scene with its massive World Headquarters Building on West Grand Boulevard since soon after the turn of the century.

New Center was little more than a muddy, open field on the ''outskirts'' of Detroit when visionaries foresaw an outward expansion as more and more horseless carriages took to the roads. When that happened, they reasoned, New Center would be the city's new hub of commerce.

General Motors invested in that vision. It hired famed architect Albert Kahn, who designed a then-daringly plain building of 3,500 offices in four wings atop a base of fluted arches. It was an impressive achievement, a building worthy of a corporation attracting visitors from all parts of the globe.

Mr. Kahn also designed the Fisher Building across the boulevard from GM. It features lavish decorations of bronze, mosaics, and more than 40 kinds of marble and is topped with a lighted ''golden tower,'' a landmark Detroiters can spot from miles away at night.

Many major businesses were attracted to the area, which was soon bustling with trade. Fine restaurants catered to business luminaries from around the world.

And nearby, a neighborhood of gracious town houses, apartments, and homes, vintage 1900-1925, sprang into being. They boasted high ceilings, hardwood floors, stained glass windows, ceramic tile baths, and hand-carved banisters.

New Center, in its heyday, was a lively, cosmopolitan community where office workers strolled the tree-lined boulevards; chauffeur-driven limousines brought socialites to shop at branches of exclusive New York stores; theaters, art galleries, radio stations, and bookstores added an exciting cultural ambience.

Then, after World War II, it began to change. Big-city blight and big-city crime took their toll. Many homeowners defected to the suburbs and businesses soon followed. The trend turned to a rout after the civil disturbances of the late 1960s, when Detroit suffered the worst of all the big-city riots which swept the United States in those troubled years.

Buildings stood empty. Fewer and fewer people came to stroll or shop. The area took on the bleak, gray pall of a run-down, deserted neighborhood on its way out.

But a few companies stood their ground, believing New Center could be brought back to life. One of them was General Motors, which decided to back its faith with action.

The giant corporation's first step in the early '70s was to spend $30 million ''cleaning up our own act,'' an official recalls. It upgraded the GM Building with all new windows, elevators, heating and cooling systems, and a general refurbishing. It bought surrounding properties, tearing down old buildings or improving them and adding much needed parking facilities.

The next phase, in early 1977, was a $1.25 billion beautification program for new outdoor lighting, trees, mini-parks with fountains and benches, planter boxes, and lawns. The idea was to give back to the more than 50,000 employees in the neighborhood their enjoyment of working in the city.

Once again, summer sidewalks were filled with people. Park benches were full. There was talk, laughter, a hint of hope that bloomed alongside the petunias and rhododendrons. Downtown, the Renaissance Center had opened, with its towering glass cylinders housing a hotel and office buildings. The feisty, comeback ''Spirit of Detroit'' slogan was catching on.

Robert F. Gregory, now deeply involved in New Center's revitalization as manager of New Center Development Partnership, recalls what happened next:

''GM vice-chairman Richard Terrell, now retired, was then spearheading GM's commitment to New Center. He felt some nice steps had been taken but that we had to do something more significant - that there was a far bigger challenge to face.''

As a result, the corporation hired a consulting firm, Gladstone & Associates of Washington, D.C., which recommended:

* Restoration of the deteriorated housing in the 18 blocks immediately north of the GM Building.

* Remedying the lack of public services (alleys, lights, traffic flow).

* Correctiong the lack of good retail space.

A master plan was developed by Johnson, Johnson, and Roy, urban planning architects in nearby Ann Arbor. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young pledged the cooperation of the city. Other major banks and businesses joined the venture as limited partners with GM.

In September 1978 GM and its partners announced a multimillion-dollar New Center Revitalization Project for the 18-block residential area. Included in the plan were:

* Purchase and renovation over a four-year period (until 1983) of 125 single-family homes and town houses and 175 apartment units, initial capitalization ($2.85 million) to be shared approximately half by GM's subsidiary, New Center Community Corporation, and half by the 14 partners.

* Substantial upgrading of the public portions of the area to be known as New Center Commons, including rerouting some streets to divert traffic, creation of parks and walkways, installation of gateways, historical lampposts and decorative brick walls, new garages for dwellings, and parking for the public.

* Development of a new housing complex through private investment to include construction of a federally subsidized 200-unit building to house senior citizens; a town-house complex of 50 rental units for low- and moderate-income families; plus 33 condominiums.

Cooperating in the project are government agencies, including the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Michigan State Housing Development Authority, New Detroit Inc., and the city of Detroit.

''A lot of businesses these days are involving themselves in helping their cities through neighborhood revitalization,'' Mr. Gregory said. ''Many companies give money or put up their own buildings, but here we've taken on the entire job from start to finish. We're actually involved in every house, every street, every building.''

Twelve rehabbed homes have been sold to date, Mr. Gregory reports, and the rest are expected to be sold by 1983. They range from $70,000 to $135,000 for single-family dwellings.

''This summer we hope to sell some town-house units in the $30,000-$60,000 price range,'' Mr. Gregory said. ''Our aim is to provide a mix of all types of housing, all sizes, all price ranges, for both rent and sale.''

To meet the problem of high interest rates on mortgages, which has held down sales, New Center Partnership offers a small package of below-market mortgages for the next 10 buyers at interest rates ranging from 11 to 13.8 percent. Buyers paying 20 percent down will receive a fixed interest rate of 13.8 percent. Those paying 50 percent down, qualify for 11 percent mortgages.

John and Fran Cornelius were the first to buy a rehabbed house on Pallister Avenue. They have a parkscape in front instead of a street and a new garage at the rear.

''It's the best of all possible houses,'' John Cornelius said, as he described the eight-room, two-story-with-attic house. Its attributes include original oak paneling, leaded glass windows - ''even one stained glass window'' - a cozy fireplace, and an inviting fieldstone front porch.

The brick-paved pedestrian mall they face has Victorian gas lamps, brick and wood fencing, benches, flowers, and shade trees. Utility wiring is underground.

''We have a view of the Detroit skyline. I work downtown at Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, so I'm just 15 minutes from my office,'' he continued. ''Fran walks every day to her job as a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital.''

The Corneliuses like the character of their neighborhood.

''It's old and charming and we're pleased with the aesthetics,'' Mr. Cornelius said. ''We have an interesting mix of neighbors, many of them professionals in their early 30s, like ourselves. There's a college dean, a stock broker, an insurance executive, a minister. We all prefer living in the city. We have our own community council. We can walk to the theater. It's very cosmopolitan.''

Not every home in the neighborhood was purchased by GM.

''Those who wanted to keep their homes received technical assistance, architectural consultations, and low-interest loans so they could fix them up themselves,'' Bob Gregory explained.

Meanwhile, good things have been happening in the private sector nearby. Burroughs Corporation, an early and staunch supporter of revitalization, built its $35 million world headquarters in New Center in the early 1970s, on the site it has occupied since 1904.

The English-style St. Regis Hotel is undergoing extensive renovations.

Alexander & Alexander, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, Comprehensive Health Services of Detroit, and dozens more in the New Center area have undertaken major improvement programs.

One big new addition is New Center One, a $50 million retail-office complex across the street on one side from the GM Building and on the other, the Fisher Building. Pedestrian skyways will link it to both. Now nearing completion, New Center One will provide six stories of deluxe office space above two levels of retail shops and restaurants, all built around an eight-story atrium. Its builder, Trizec New Center Development Associates, is a partnership formed by Trizec Western Inc. and New-Center Commercial Corporation, a GM subsidiary.

By the end of next year, when the last brick is in place and the last sawdust is swept up, planners expect New Center to be restored to its original luster and prove again that ''life in the city'' for residents, businesses, and workers , is ''a good life.''

''We embarked on this as a pilot program,'' said Gregory, ''to see what GM management could bring to this task from a business point of view. If it's successful here, maybe it could be replicated in other places where GM has plants and facilities.''

And there's another benefit:

''We have a tremendous investment not only in property but in people. We want to improve their working environment. Revitalization of the neighborhood helps. This, in turn, aids our recruiting efforts. People are drawn to work in a place which is cheerful, attractive, exciting, safe. That's the way New Center used to be. That's the way we want it to be again.''

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