Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Maybe ReThink London should Remember Detroit

Recently I read a very positive take on a new building in town — a four story condo. According to the author, the new units are selling very well — so well that the developer has applied to the city council’s planning committee for permission to begin construction of the second phase. This is ahead of schedule.

The Nuvo Condos promise luxury living.
I drove by the building to have a closer look. It is actually quite nice. I think it looks much better in the flesh than in pictures. Yet, I still didn't like it. It is not the building itself that turns me off but the company it keeps. The new structure is sitting on the edge of an absolutely massive highrise housing development, possibly the largest, densest grouping of tall apartment buildings in all of the London area. When seen from some angles I call it a taste of Hong Kong.

This is the neighbourhood Nuvo in which Nuvo finds itself.
Please don't misunderstand, I am not against highrises. I loved the highrise in which I lived forty years ago in Toronto. That building was sitting in a neighbourhood of private homes, near parks, near the Danforth, near the subway. Almost all parking was underground.

For the most part, these tall London buildings sit apart, divorced from the surrounding city. Walk out the front door of one of these monoliths and walk into a parking lot — acres of asphalt cover the neighbourhood. Cars are parked around the buildings, in low-level parking garages nearby and probably underneath as well.

It is all very practical. Truth is folk prefer to park above ground that brave an underground parking garage. But that fact doesn't make all the acres of parking visually pleasing. But, I must begrudgingly admit, these buildings do seem to work. The do a yeomanlike job of providing a roof over people's heads.

I can't fault critics for saying these look like "the projects."
Some folks see these and see what are known as "the projects" in the States. These are not the disgraced projects. Furthermore, the projects did not fail because of architecture despite the prevailing mythology.

I do not like these buildings, successful or not. One must be careful not to equate success with good. People for the most part are good and good people need affordable housing. Clump a lot of these good people together in decent, clean, practical housing and you may well have a successful development. But, and it is a big but, this does not mean it could not be done better.

To learn how this is done, one need look no further than Detroit and its Palmer Park Heritage Apartment District. This was an area I knew well as a young man back when I was going to art school in Motown back in the mid '60s. This was one cool place to live. It was a stigma free high density neighbourhood

Palmer Park Apartment District: Photo by Andrew Jameson
I used to visit friends living in Palmer Park. The neighbourhood was very walkable with ice cream stores, hamburger joints and beer and wine stores nearby. Every thing a student could want.

Actually, the walk could be a little long, depending upon where in the area one lived, but the area was just so interesting: Moorish arches, art deco buildings, lots of stained glass. As an art student I was in heaven.

And when one tired of strolling the apartment lined streets, there was Palmer Park itself, with its fountain, tennis courts, miles of biking trails and Palmer Pond for ice skating in the winter. And Woodward Avenue was right there. It was a quick trip to some of the best shopping in the world.

 Read what the United States National Park Service says:

From 1925 to 1965, 40 buildings were constructed, with the majority built in the 1920s and 1930s, to accommodate middle-class and upper middle-class tenants. The Palmer Park Apartment Buildings reflect the latest concepts and technology in multiple-family housing unit design from the time and are excellent examples of various exotic architectural styles such as the Egyptian, Spanish, Mediterranean, Venetian, Tudor, and Moorish Revival styles. 

Today, sadly, the district has fallen on tough times. This is no surprise as this is Detroit. Detroit has lost tens of thousands of high-paying jobs and hundreds of thousands of residents. Detroit's neighbourhoods are deserted and decaying not because they were bad but because there were no people left to live in them. The exodus of jobs and of people left no one to buy the homes offered for sale, even when the asking price was but a fraction of their former value.

Keeping the above in mind, let's take a Google Street Views tour of the Palmer Park Historic Apartment District.

The entrance to the district off Woodward Avenue at Merton Road.
Proceeding down Merton Road but still close to Woodward Avenue. 
As interesting inside as out: Cool doors, hallways, lots of wood, stained glass.
Porches on this Manderson Road apartment were popular gathering places.

Not all the apartments were massive. Note the two on the right.
Covington Drive apartment faces Palmer Park itself. Note good condition.
Parkview Apartment on Covington Drive is simple but still stylish.
The district had more than apartments: Churches, stores, parkland, schools . . .
The Woodward streetcar line may be long gone but there are plans to bring it back, bigger and better. The U.S. Department of Transport has announced a planned $137 million dollar M-1 Rail project to revitalize the Woodward Avenue Corridor.

The J.L. Hudson flagship store is gone and closer to Palmer Park the rows of business which once lined Woodward are also just memories. On the plus side, the Fox Theatre and the new home of the Detroit Tigers are both on Woodward Avenue. Even Palmer Park has had a revival of sorts. I've seen pictures of the fountain in the park, forgotten and sprouting trees in its empty pool. Today the fountain has been cleaned up and looks rather welcoming.

Palmer Park, not as grand as it once was, but still a very nice urban space.

 If you found this interesting, you might like to mark this date on your calendar: Friday, October 4, 2013. This is when the Third Annual People for Palmer Park Historic Architecture Tour will be held. You can visit Detroit and view the work of some of Detroit’s finest architects. For tickets and more information, click on the following link: Tour.

I just wish I could interest the London planning department and the London city council to visit the Palmer Park Historical Apartment District. We don't have to build Moorish style or art deco looking apartments but surely we don't have to build so many filing cabinets for people either.

Maybe ReThink London should remember Detroit.

An apartment complex even Le Corbusier might hate.

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