Last-ditch effort made to save Hudson's building
Group cites loophole in law to stave off razing of landmark

By Mark Puls/The Detroit News

A group of Detroiters is asking a judge to block demolition of the derelict J.L. Hudson Building, where fences were erected Thursday in preparation for pulling down the landmark structure.

The group says the city's Downtown Development Authority, under state law, must hold public hearings before it can legally use tax money to raze the old store, which once was the flagship of the department store chain.

Its members are convinced that revitalization of Detroit's downtown is imminent, and that the old Hudson Building – closed in the early 1980s – could be renovated as part of that effort.

"We want the city to hold the wrecking ball, hold some hearings," said Blair McGowan, an owner of Historic St. Andrew's Hall in Detroit. McGowan filed the suit along with the Lower Woodward Housing Coalition.

With casinos and two sports stadiums in Detroit's future, the building is ripe for development, McGowan said. He wants the city to explore the possibilities.

"If there is no interest in the building, then tear it down," he said.

More than a dozen proposals have been made in past years to save the Hudson Building, but none panned out. But that shouldn't prevent another effort to develop it, said Jim Turner of the Lower Woodward Housing Coalition.

"Throughout the 1980s, the economic climate wasn't right for any urban development," he said.

City leaders say the building, fondly remembered by generations of Detroiters, should be razed to make room for new development. Estimates for renovating the building run from $79 million to $150 million. The city hopes to develop the site with a large office building to house businesses that leave the Renaissance Center when General Motors moves there.

The vacant Hudson Building – whose interior has been stripped by salvage operators and thieves – has discouraged development of the Kern, Crowley and Monroe blocks, officials complain.

"Unless you have a check of a large amount, a cashier's check, you'll be around to watch the building come crashing down," Mayor Dennis Archer said.

The DDA, which owns the building, has set a Nov. 14 deadline for wreckers to submit bids for the demolition, and contracts are expected to be awarded Nov. 26.

Some major developers said Detroit's anticipated boom would likely attract investors, but political support by city leaders is crucial.

"There isn't any question if the political and public will has to be there." said Richard D. Baron, a native Detroiter a principal of St. Louis-based McComack Baron & Associates. "If there isn't the willingness, there is not much developers can do."

But Baron, whose company redeveloped the Cupples Station area of St. Louis and was part of a group that tired to redevelop Hudson's in Coleman Young's administration, said Detroit's leaders should reconsider the store's future.

"They should let it play out some more. Detroit has enough ability to get the private sector involved," Baron said.

Other developers said they'd be eager to redevelop the building.

David Tryba, whose company paired with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a $100-million development of a dilapidated section of Denver, believes the building could be useful.

"It's a tremendous opportunity," Tryba said. "It has features that you can't put a price on " Added New Orleans-based developer Pres Kabacoff, president of Historic Restoration.

"We see it as having important historic significance and located in an area that would connect the financial district with the entertainment district."

The building could serve a number of uses and help relieve the shortage of residential and office space downtown, developers said.

The group suing to save the old department store cites a recent study by the Greater Detroit Partnership, a quasi-governmental body of business leaders and politicians, that shows a need for more than 12,000 residential lofts in downtown Detroit.

Developers said the Hudson's built-in features – including 2.2-million square feet in 28 stories – make it attractive for upscale lofts. The ceilings are 13 feet high, with molded plaster; many floors are marble; and there are huge windows overlooking the city.

There has been a demand for similar living quarters in other major cities.

"The demand is really across the board," Tryba said. "You have a lot of empty nesters moving back to the city. These are higher, upscale developments, where people want the urban feel and the sense of style for a turn-of-the century building."

Trying to duplicate the features already existing in the Hudson's Building would be nearly impossible, developers said.

"If you were going to build that building today, you would need the very best architects, the very best builders using the most beautiful materials and the cost would be astronomical," Tryba said.

The building is walking distance to the new stadiums, theater district, proposed casino areas and a People Mover stop.

Developers see economic advantages to developing the building. It carries a federal tax credit for historic buildings that can be sold to raise as much as $20 million for start-up costs. And the building contains 2,500 underground parking spaces that would be prohibitively expensive in most major cities. Estimates to build downtown parking run as high as $25,000 a space.

“The parking is a tremendous advantage," said Bill Boecher, president of Sundance Management in Fort Worth, Texas. "You need to offer people parking if you are going to have lofts and that is expensive."

Should the Hudson's building be saved?



Historical perspective

Detroit's historic buildings tug at the hearts of preservationists, but often turn into paved parking lots because of practical matters like lack of financing. The three basic categories most buildings fall into are: Renovate and preserve; Demolish; Remain on the endangered list.

Renovated buildings

Demolished buildings

Endangered buildings

Copyright 1997, The Detroit News