The Detroit Historic District Advisory Board is moving closer to preserving buildings one block from Little Caesars Arena, an area in which the Ilitch family wants to tear down three buildings in a multimillion-dollar development.
The panel voted Thursday to finalize a proposal to create a Cass Henry Historic District encompassing a single block that includes six brick apartment buildings as well as a related commercial structure, all dating from the early 20th century.
Board staff is slated to prepare a final analysis as well as a proposed ordinance designating the historic district before the panel votes as early as next month to request that the City Council grant approval of the both, said Calvin Jackson, who leads the historic district advisory board. The city would schedule a public hearing before final approval.
Board members cited a need to recognize what’s left of the Cass Corridor as well as help preserve neighborhood features amid rapid redevelopment.
“We know this is a very emotional geography and there are a lot of complex issues,” Victoria Byrd-Olivier told the audience at Michigan State University’s Detroit Center. “I feel like we are very well served in advancing its designation.”
The district would include 2447 Cass (Grande Apartments/Hotel Ansonia); 2467 Cass (Atlanta Apartments); 427 Henry (The Henry); 439 Henry (Bretton Hall); 459 Henry (Claridge Apartments); 489 Henry (Berwin Apartments); and 447 Henry (William B. Ralston Garage).
The block, between Cass and Second and the Fisher Freeway service drive and Henry, is near the new $863 million sports-and-entertainment complex that opened last year. It’s also within the 50-block multimillion-dollar development plan known as District Detroit.
Half of the block has been transformed into surface parking lots owned by Olympia Development, an entity associated with the billionaire Ilitch family that owns much of the property in District Detroit. That project is being led by the family-run Ilitch Holdings, owners of the Little Caesars pizza chain, Olympia Development, the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers.
Olympia seeks to demolish three buildings in the area: the former Hotel Ansonia at 2447 Cass, the former Atlanta Apartments at 2467 Cass and the former Henry Apartments at 427 Henry. In June, the Detroit council voted to give the three buildings temporary historic designation.
Representatives of Olympia and Ilitch Holdings did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, three apartment buildings on the 400 block of Henry were bought in 2016 as part of a $8.1 million deal with a buyer who has worked to conceal his or her identity in public records.
The Claridge, one of the apartments that offered month-to-month rentals in the $300 to $400 range, recently was shuttered. Former residents were offered units in the Berwin, another of the Henry apartments, several tenants told The Detroit News this week.
Creating the historic district could mean more challenges for securing demolition of the properties the Ilitches own. The new owner of the low-rent apartment buildings also would have to conform to specific guidelines if planning renovations.
Decisions on the block’s fate affect residents such as Nattiel Spearman, who lives in one of the complexes. That’s why he urged the board to seek the historic status. “Some people can’t afford to move,” the construction worker said “It’s a good building and can be restored.”
Eric Kehoe, who is active with Preservation Detroit, noted an estimated 3,500 signatures were collected through a petition to keep the buildings.
“I think Olympia should listen to and respect the community and do the right thing,” he told the board.
Timothy Boscarino, a city planner who reviewed the board’s preliminary report on the proposed historic district, noted the buildings, many featuring distinctive architectural details, were erected when apartment-dwelling started becoming more popular in the city.
“They reflect this early era of apartment building construction in Detroit, which we simply don’t have a lot of remaining,” he said.
About a dozen people who spoke before the board Thursday called on members to push for the historic district and preserving the buildings within its proposed boundaries.
“The beauty of these buildings endures,” Detroiter Claire Nowak-Boyd said. “Do we want a city that’s for residents that listens to residents … or a city that’s determined by a small handful of ultra-wealthy developers? Do we want a city where we use our land for housing, for people … or do we want a city where we use our land for $35 surface parking lots that are only used during special events?”
Preservation also aligns with future plans for the city as growth extends beyond downtown, said Jeff Herron, who lives in the Boston-Edison district. “If we are to have a walkable city … that reflects our history and the people who live here, losing these buildings would be substantial.”
Staff Writer Louis Aguilar contributed.