Conversations / Shawn Santo

Hugging Hudson's

August 24, 1997

By Patty LaNoue Stearns / Detroit Free Press

Urban booster says it's not too late to save the beloved downtown building

As a teen growing up in Plymouth, Shawn Santo didn't pay much attention to downtown Detroit. It wasn't until 1990, when she enrolled in an art history class at Wayne State University, that the spark ignited.

"I started exploring the city — the churches, the little pockets in town. I was so amazed by all of the options that were so opposite my suburban experience — where it's a faceless placelessness of strip malls and Blockbusters and monotone-style homes."

Since 1995, when she produced her first issue of the Left Bank magazine in the downtown loft that is her home and office, Santo has been on a mission to enlighten people about the urban experience — which she believes is as electric in Detroit as in any other major city in the United States.

But she worries that development plans for the city are too narrowly focused on entertainment and on those she calls "secondary users: people who just come into the city and patronize a bar, sporting event, casino and then leave." Santo wants Detroit to become a vital, 4-hour, world-clas city, one that balances living, working and playing and mixes historic buildings with new ones.

That's why she — along with a growing group of architects, attorneys and community activitis — believes it's time to rethink demolishing the Hudson's building, which the City Council voted to do earlier this year. Since then, crews have been prepping the former downtown department store for demolition-stripping it of asbestos and other hazards.

From the bay window in her loft, Santo sees the building that has sat empty for 14 years not as a symbol of Detroit's decay but as one of its rebirth. Even as the Detroit Historical Museum prepares to open its "Remembering Downtown Hudson's" exhibit next week, Santo is not giving up.

She has joined forces with urban planner James Nicita of Detroit's Victor Development, the Lower Woodward Housing Coalition, Hudson's Redevelopment Committee, CityScape Detroit and Preservation Wayne in a last-ditch effort to stop demotion. Thus far, plans for redeveloping the site are unknown, and repeated calls to the nonprofit group that owns the building, the Greater Downtown Partnership Inc., were not returned.

Last month, Santo and Nicita submitted a request to the Environmental Protection Agency to have the site put on the historic preservation list.

What are you hoping to do with the EPA?
Actually, we finally got our letter back form the EPA, and they said the passed the buck along to the City of Detroit. We hoped it would be an injunction to prevent demolition, but now it's just passing the buck.

If the building does go down — what next?
Our continuing effort, before the actual physical work is done to start its demolition, is just to keep pursuing avenues to bring more attention and awareness to a larger body of people who are concerned about the decisions made.

You never shopped at downtown Hudson's, saw Santa or the Easter Bunny at Hudson's, so why do you want to save the building?
I think the power of the building to nurture Detroit's rebound is underestimated. The momentum with redevelopment projects is really high in the city now, with the Detroit Opera House, Harmonie Park, the stadiums. But the Hudson's building has the power to draw in the generations of people in the whole metropolitan region — more so than any other building or any other project.

But even people who are nostalgic about it have concluded that it's no longer a valid building.
There's a negative perception because it's been standing vacant for so long, but it needs to be realized as an asset. There had never been a more optimal opportunity to redevelop the Hudson's building than this point in Detroit's hisotry — with the Archer administration, the development, the excitement and momentum, as well as the housing market being so strong in Detroit and the demand for lofts downtown. Those conditions weren't in the scenario even three years ago.

The building right now is physically in better condition or poised for a developer that it's been. (Because of the asbestos removal that was required by the Environmental Protection Agency before demolition.)

The Greater Downtown Partnership has done a wonderful service by clearing the title and starting enviromental remediation. So it's actually almost to the point of perfect preparation for a developer.

What do you see the building becoming?
Ideally, a mixed-use development that would incorporate housing along with retail; and being 2.2 million square feet, it's not like it can't accommodate anything — even a small hotel.

Certainly the building would serve as a catalyst for the whole Woodward Corridor. It would spark rehab projects by the owners, who are just sitting on them, waiting to see what happens.

If the avenue of demolition is followed, it's going to be a 2-year prospect just to bring the building down. But in this current time frame in Detroit, it would be a shame to use over $15 million of taxpayers money toward the demolition when legitimate developers could redo it.

Who are these developers?
The two strongest are Randy Alexander out of Madison, Wis., who has rehabbed a wide range of projects, everything from abandoned warehouses to huge train stations, old schools, but he specializes in adaptive reuse. He's worked on projects in Cleveland, Madison, Toledo, and Ft. Worth. He had a proposal where, with the city's support, it would be a 2-year-until-finished project. He would rehab it into 500 to 800 loft units, and he's open to what our city wants. He made a pitch to the Greater Downtown Partnership about a year ago. He was thwarted because they already had their demolition plan in place.

Another very popular name-Arnold Schwarzenegger — has a company called Grand American, which focuses on adaptive reuse and historical mixed-use project development. they're currently involved in Denver. His architect, David Tryba, has attempted to bring their Hudson's proposal for Detroit.

And they've been rebuffed?
Basically. I think everyone who's interested in Detroit is hoping for its health and wants to move it in a positive, forward direction, and so along that line we have common agendas. It's just this one issue regarding the Hudson's building where we differ.

My last conversation with the real estate acquisition of the Greater Downtown Partnership, Mark Yagerlener, who is a very thoughtful man, told me: "Shawn, it's a done deal, end of story."

I have concerns with "destroy and replace." If you destroy Hudson's, what replacement value would be given for the building? You can't replace the psychological ties to the people of our region. You can't replace the links to our heritage that the Hudson's building represents as an institution.

What happened at the public hearing on the demolition of the building held on July 8?
City Council President Maryann Mahaffey arranged for the 13th-floor auditorium to be made available for an evening. It actually had a turnout of 150 people. Members of the partnership and Downtown Development Authority were asked to be present to explain their position to people, and they declined.

We wanted it to be just more discussion of the issue. And then without the DDA or partnership presenting their side it really became more of a pro-Hudson's redevelopment body. And of that, approximately 9 to 15 of us were working in whatever capacity we could to promote readaptive use to a larger body. And now there's approximately 100 people continually working at least three times a week in some way to do what they can before the D day (rumored to be around Labor Day).

What's your affinity with old buildings?
It's not really just about old buildings — it's about the ideal city. And the ideal city would be a juxtaposition of old with new. Look how many substantial buildings are going to come down for the stadium project. Id Hudson's comes down, it's just destroying the whole street, wall and corridor, where does it stop?

That's probably the bigger question. Incorporating old buildings into urban areas is the character feature that makes a place special, unique. It fosters a sense of place.

Cultural-based cities really have long-term sustainability throughout time, and America is becoming more and more a disposable environment, a throwaway society.

You live and work in the same place, but how many people in your immediate area do the same?
There's a larger community here than people know about. People assume that all of these buildings they see are abandoned, because they look abandoned from the outside. But if they scratch beneath the surface, they'll find designers, small business, architects and artists. Traditionally, it has been artists who are on the forefront, like (New York's) SoHo district, of redeveloping and making an area desirable. And that is going on currently in the lower Woodward Corridor, on Broadway and Capitol Park. There are record producers, and one of the largest Techno music scenes in the world is going on over on Gratiot in buildings people assumed are abandoned.

But once it becomes mainstream, it's not going to appeal to the same people who are living there now.
True, but it's moving toward a healthier city. You can see the desire by more conventional types for an urban setting projected into the medium of TV. Several TV shows glorify loft living in a live-work situation. Once something hits TV, you can basically count on it crossing over to the majority lifestyle.

What I like is I can do everything without a car. I can walk to get food or visit my friends. It's a whole difference lifestyle of more community focus. The grocer — you know his name. It's not just a cashier at a checkout. There's a whole neighborhood and community down here that is real nourishing.

So this is a situation you think others could embrace?
I think there's a whole generation of people who grew up with a suburban experience that crave the urban experience, who are wowed with they go to Chicago or New York or Toronto. and they don't have an opportunity within our region for that kind of urban setting and vitality that a city has.

So that's another market that I think the decision makers of Detroit aren't looking toward. They're thinking in the mind-set of their generation: "I'd like to come down for a show, I'd like to come down for an event," so we'll get more shown, more sporting events and that way you'll get some more dollars into the city.

Our parents left the city to move and develop the suburbs of Detroit-and I think it's a cycle. Now the next wave is returning to the city, and that's a nationwide trend. It's not for everyone, but it's definitely a trend.

What do you like most about living downtown?
The cultural venues are amazing — I live a block from the Opera House, so that's an exciting new thing to have in the area. If you're living downtown, you're more likely to go over on a Wednesday night to the symphony and catch a show there than when you're living outside the city. It's more of an event — I'm coming down for a symphony — where here it becomes a way of life.

I go to the Detroit Institute of Arts' Film Theatre often. And I'd have to say Eastern Market is my favorite place downtown.

One of the best things is the access to local live music — you can see world-class jazz performers on Thursday nights at the SereNgeti ballroom on Woodward. Or you can go to BoMac's or Bert's.

Have you been able to convince your suburban friends to come downtown?
I'm always looking for reasons to get them to come down, and I think an evening in Detroit is nourishing to them in a they're not used to. I actually hosted my sister's wedding reception in my loft this summer, and it was a couple of hundred people, mostly over 40, who hadn't been to the city in a real long time. I think the general feeling leaving that evening was a very enthusiastic one. And now they're always trying to keep tabs on what's going on downtown.

What's your next push?
Mass transit. It's critical to the development of our city and to promoting a different type of lifestyle. It's quality of time: not rushing here, rushing there. The people are interesting that you meet, ad the transition from work to home is lot better than fighting a traffic jam.

Occupation: Editor, the Left Bank magazine

Born: Nov. 4, 1968, Garden City

Education: Graduated from Plymouth-Salem High School, 1986; studied art and urban planning at Wayne State University, 1988-1995

Professional: Launched the Left Bank, a quarterly publication "exposing the richness and quality of life in Detroit" in 1995 while a student at Wayne; she designs and edits the artful, $5 publication, which is filled with articles on Detroit's history, architecture, music and other cultural issues. It has a circulation of about 10,000 and is distributed throughout the metro area and to subscribers in New York, LA, and Europe. She is a board member of CityScape Detroit.

Personal: Lives in a downtown loft; single; no children. She makes ceramic architectural tiles and is a self-admitted periodical junkie — Metropolis, the Utne Reader, Paper and the Italian Abitare are her favorites. Santo also loves foraging for salvage items from old buildings.