Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rust Belt cities can learn from each other

A few months ago I attended a meeting encouraging the discussion of ways to save downtown London. Why someone would think knocking Detroit, Michigan would add anything to the discussions, I can't fathom. But one person did just that.

I was angered. Detroit was a wonderful city. When I was a boy it was middle class heaven. Its descent into a state of urban hell can only be looked at with great concern. If a city as mighty as Detroit can crumble in not years but months, all cities are at risk. All cities, and that includes London.

With the loss of the Electro-Motive Diesel plant this year, the loss of the local Ford assembly plant last year, and an unemployment number that is among the worst in the entire country, I think London may have strolled through the door to Rust Belt Ville.

Flint thought a mall would bring back their fading downtown.
What measures have many Rust Belt burgs taken to try and stem the decay? Uh, put in an expensive, first-rate downtown mall? Yup! Flint did that.

Hmm. Didn't London do that, too? Yup! Think Galleria, oh, we changed the name to Citi Plaza to attract a tenant. Last I checked, there are signs the tenant may leave but London will have the name to remember them by.

What was the business that was going to turn around the London mall? A call center. Yup, the business model that lots of Rust Belt cities attached their rusting chain to. It didn't work out all that well for many of them, either.

Hmm. Maybe London could get the university to open a downtown campus. That's been a popular strategy throughout the Rust Belt. Sometimes a university will take over an empty building near the new downtown campus, injecting hundreds of students into the dying core. Yup, London is considering this move, too

Oh, there is one difference in the London approach. London is threatening to move residents out of a functioning downtown apartment building, to empty it in order to move student in. Some would see this as a weird twist on an old core renewal scheme.

Which brings me to one of my old complaints. London had a fine downtown theatre that deteriorated from years of neglect. In the end, the auditorium was demolished and a parking lot put in. The facade of the building was sorta saved. But, most would be hard pressed to tell it was ever a theatre. The theatre was torn down over the protests of a group of Londoners who wanted to see it transformed into a performing arts centre.

So what have other Rust Belt cities done? Well, many have not gone quietly, letting a gem slip away. Accepting a parking lot as full replacement. Tonight, I stumbled upon the Utica, New York solution. Gosh, but I hope it works.

LEDs provide the light. A green chandelier.
Utica took a bold approach. They dumped $20 million into renovations to their old theatre to bring the Stanley Theatre for the Arts up to the standard demanded by today's touring companies. And they did things that made news --- like installing the world’s largest LED free-hanging chandelier.

Custom crafted of steel, blown-glass and acrylic, the magnificent chandelier is 35 feet in diameter, 17 feet tall, 7,000 pounds and hand-finished in antique gold and bronze. It was designed to complement the Stanley Theater’s Mexican baroque Moorish theme.

But this is not just another large chandelier, this baby exhibits state-of-the-green-art technology. Using 274 LEDs, the chandelier uses power equivalent to eleven 100-watt incandescent light bulbs – a 98.5% energy savings!

The London solution: Gutted theatre, now office space.
The refurbished theatre has had a rough start. But it is still struggling along and when one considers the present economic climate, this cannot come as a surprise. I like these folks' style but it will be some time before we know for sure whether the Utica approach or the London approach is best.

It is hard to make a comparison between London and Utica. The London theatre is now expensive office space on long term lease to the city. Because of the high leasing costs, the remaining Capitol Theatre facade is an ongoing cost to the city and will be for many years. In Utica the refurbished theatre may also be an ongoing cost to the city. Which will be the bigger drain? Which is the best use of taxpayer money?

The Utica, New York, solution: a refurbished theatre.

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