Detroit, the host with the least.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 3 2006 12:41 PM

The Host With the Least

Detroit fails to capitalize on the Super Bowl.

Former Motown headquarters make way for a parking lot. Click image to expand.
Former Motown headquarters make way for a parking lot

When Detroit hosted the Republican National Convention in 1980, the city was a little nervous. An exodus of whites after the riots of the 1960s had left Detroit a shell too big for its contents—it lost half its white population during the 10 years that preceded the convention. * Businesses pulled out of the city, crime rose, and abandoned buildings dotted downtown.

Faced with the challenge of making the city look populated, then-Mayor Coleman Young gave orders to spruce up some of the vacant buildings around the convention center. One of these was the Statler Hotel, a grand Italian Renaissance-style building that anchored the once-posh shopping district between Michigan Avenue and Grand Circus Park *. Built in 1914, the 1,000-room hotel had steadily lost business before closing in 1975. To mask its neglected facade, the city hung bright red awnings over the now-empty hotel's massive street-level windows. Instead of fooling passers-by, the giant awnings became a symbol of Detroit's inability to deal with its endemic problems.

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Twenty-five years later, Detroit, now the site of Super Bowl XL, doesn't have to worry about awnings. Last summer, the city tore down the still-empty Statler Hotel.

The Super Bowl has always held the promise of positive economic impact and word of mouth for the host city. Recently, that benefit has been made fairly explicit, as the NFL has promised future Super Bowls to cities that build and finance new stadiums, like Detroit has done with Ford Field. The understanding is that a city can recoup some of its stadium costs with the tourism dollars that accompany the week of events surrounding the game.

A city's biggest potential revenue stream during a mega-event comes from accommodations. Detroit has virtually none. A lucky few will stay at the Renaissance on the river, but the vast majority of Super Bowl visitors will stay in the suburbs, rent cars in the suburbs, and drive them into the city only for the big event.

The neighborhood around Ford Field (in background) hasn't seen much economic development. Click image to expand.
The neighborhood around Ford Field (in background) hasn't seen much economic development

In 2001, when Detroit was picked to host, there were plans for several major hotel projects to be finished in time for the Super Bowl. The city's three casinos were steaming ahead with plans for the construction of permanent facilities, including Vegas-style hotel towers. The Book-Cadillac, an elegant, historic downtown hotel, had a reputable development team ready to begin restoration. Fast-forward five years later: The casino hotels have been stalled by litigation, and the Book-Cadillac remains shuttered and moldy. The Madison-Lenox, another historic hotel a block and a half from Ford Field, was demolished in 2005 to make way for a parking garage despite the best efforts of preservationists and developers.

Parking is at a premium, of course, because everyone is driving in from their suburban hotels. Another sacrifice to the parking gods: the old headquarters of Motown Records. What was once supposed to become a museum was knocked down last month so it could be used for a parking lot during the game.

A tremendous amount of development has taken place during the last few years. Lofts are going up downtown and young suburban professionals are tiptoeing back into the city. But most of the urban planning decisions surrounding the Super Bowl have placed short-term gain over long-term planning. These quick fixes are necessary in part because Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick spent much of the last few years distracted by scandals involving his use of public funds for, among other things, spa treatments and leasing an SUV for his family. But the main explanation for these missteps is Detroit's perennial problem: Suburbanites don't need the city. The resources that most cities offer—high-end restaurants, movie theaters, retail, museums, hotels—are located in the suburbs instead of the city core. While the suburbs have no compelling self-interest to support the city financially, Detroiters are just trying to get by. In an illustration of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the city is too busy trying to maintain police coverage and keep its schools open to worry about remaking its image from the top down.

The city needs hotels to draw future conventions and events to the downtown, not parking lots to accommodate visitors who have no choice but to stay in the suburbs. It needs attractions that can entertain people, not just events like the Super Bowl that come with their own attractions. And it needs to make the most of a resource that other cities would kill for—an abundance of stunning, historic architecture that sits empty, waiting for restoration and redevelopment.

Some creative Detroiters, trying to make the most of the city's grim reputation, have promoted their town as embodying shabby chic, much like the grunge era, pre-tech boom Seattle did. The movie 8 Mile and a recent Chevy Impala commercial both featured the empty Michigan Theater, the interior of which has been turned into—no surprise here—a parking garage. Graffiti artists have also transformed the windows of the abandoned United Artists building into stained-glass paintings that were recently featured on the cover of Preservation magazine. In December, however, the paintings were removed as part of an effort to relieve blight. Super Bowl attendees who pass the building will now see just another empty structure.

As Detroit enters center stage again, Coleman Young's much-ridiculed strategy of simulating vibrancy is being revived. Ford Field is located off a stretch of the business district that features new developments interspersed with abandoned storefronts. Local architects have set up displays in seven abandoned buildings and more than 20 eye-level store windows near Ford Field so that passers-by won't be greeted by gated or boarded-up shops. In addition, the city has spent money to turn some vacant buildings in the area into temporary memorabilia shops. They will most likely return to their previous state once visitors—and Super Bowl retailers—have left town following the game.

Correction, Feb. 4: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that Detroit lost half its population between 1970 and 1980. The city lost half its white population during that period. Also, this piece implied that a once-posh Detroit shopping area sat at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Grand Circus Park. It was between Michigan Avenue and Grand Circus Park.

Amy Sullivan is an editor at the Washington Monthly. Amy Hetletvedt is an architect who lives and works in Detroit. They are both Michigan natives.

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