Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Fate of Historic Hotel to be Decided Upon Tonight

Initially, tonight's meeting between the owner of the Madison-Lenox hotel and the Detroit Historic District Commission was designed to address some unanswered questions that arose last month when the Commission tabled a request by the property's owner to demolish the historic building. In light of an announcement by a Birmingham developer made this morning, though, tonight's hearing is likely to take on a much different turn.

In case you are not familiar with what is going on with the Madison-Lenox, let me step back and give you a brief synopsis:

The Madison-Lenox Hotel is a 105-year old property that was designed by A.C. Varney, an architect that masterminded many of the buildings in the historic Harmonie Park district (most of which have been demolished). Constructed in 1900, the Madison Hotel was joined by the Lenox three years later and, eventually, a two-story dining area was constructed as a connection between the structures. The beautiful French-gothic styled structures served Detroit's rich and famous, as well as out-of-towners for decades, until the cycle of suburbanization, a decreasing city tax base, and blight put the Madison-Lenox out of business in the 1990s.

Sold to a private company - Olympia Entertainment, a subsidiary of Ilitch Holdings - soon after its closure, the original redevelopment plans for the structures indicated that they would be used as office space. If you've driven down Madison Avenue lately, however, you know that the Madison-Lenox hasn't been used for anything, except perhaps as a haven for birds and bugs.

During the latter 1990s, concern about the beautiful historic buildings that had been left to deteriorate quickly mounted on both local and state levels. Although numerous citations were issued to the property owner about the dangerously decaying state of the Madison-Lenox, the notices were continually ignored. As a result, the mid-size double structure has continued to erode. With nearly all of its windows broken and its inherent inability to fend off natural elements, the Madison-Lenox has gone from grand to grotesque.

As Detroit struggles to prepare itself for the 2006 SuperBowl, many people - including Detroit's Economic Growth Corporation - believe that the Madison-Lenox has become nothing but an eyesore. Located in an area of Detroit that has seen an enormous commercial revival in the past five years, the decaying M-L is a reminder of the historic property negligence that many growth-supporters of Detroit want to forget. Their solution? Tear the building down.

The situation is not that simple, though. Although the Madison-Lenox has been under investigation since 2001 under the body's demolition by neglect rules, the structure cannot be torn down by its owner without the approval of the Detroit Historic District Commission, the same organization that tabled the demolition request back in January. According to the fabulous website of The Friends of the Book-Cadillac Hotel, a group of Detroiters that saved the famous BC from demolition in 2003, the current owner of the Madison-Lenox has no solid information to back its request for demolition. In fact, the website has a number of items available in .pdf format - such as a 2003 environmental feasibility study whose findings indicated that the structure can be soundly redeveloped - that counter the financial, economical, and social constraints that Olympia Entertainment has relied on to back its demolition request. Adding further strength to the anti-demolition arsenal is the fact that the Madison-Lenox was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year, a label that surely strengthened its barricade against demolition.

Until this morning, however, the fate of the M-L was frighteningly unknown. The struggle - which pitted the preservationists against the capitalists - could have gone either way, especially considering that no alternative buyer had entered the picture.

But then, like an 11th hour bargaining moment, the tides quickly turned: a developer in Metro Detroit came forward, announcing a $24 million redevelopment initiative for the structure.

According to The Detroit News, Kathy Sinclair of Bimingham's Downtown Development Co. proposed a $24 million infill development of the structure that would keep the facade details and original architecture intact while renovating and restoring the entire property. Sinclair provided an artist's rendition, which is viewable on the site of the article noted above, and noted that the hotel would be turned into condominium units and a 40-room hotel.

With this new development, it will be very interesting to see what the decision of the DHDC will be tonight.