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TMCNet:  Developers to study ways to breathe life into Hart Plaza

[December 20, 2012]

Developers to study ways to breathe life into Hart Plaza

Dec 20, 2012 (Detroit Free Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The future of Hart Plaza, Detroit's most important downtown gathering spot, may be determined by a nearly $500,000 study authorized this week by the city's Downtown Development Authority.


In agreeing to hire NBBJ, LLC, an international architecture and planning firm that has worked on several projects in Detroit, DDA board members on Wednesday acknowledged that Hart Plaza suffers numerous drawbacks that hold back its potential.

The plaza is crowded during special events but largely empty much of the time. Some features, like a below-ground restaurant, have never worked very well. Maintenance costs are rising, and the plaza does little to connect the riverfront to the rest of downtown or to the city's RiverWalk.

"It is our most valuable real estate yet we use it very poorly," Linda Bade, the City of Detroit chief assessor and a member of the DDA board, said during this week's DDA meeting that approved the study.

Bade and others said the goal is to redesign Hart Plaza so that it better connects visitors to the rest of downtown and to the RiverWalk. Another goal is to connect Cobo Center in some way with the city's largest convention hotel, the Marriott in the Renaissance Center.

Redesigning the plaza will not be quick or easy. Financing is available now only for the first of three phases of the planned study. The DDA board will have to find more money to complete the study, and beyond that to actually do the work, a cost certain to total in the many millions of dollars.

But the DDA vote to approve the study shows that the city is serious about moving forward with the first major redesign of Hart Plaza in several decades, since the plaza was created in the 1970s.

Over the years, critics have complained that Hart Plaza is too "hard" in its expanse of concrete, and have suggested softening it with lawns or other features. The city would also like to create a music amphitheatre to replace the demolished Ford Auditorium.

Hart Plaza, measuring about 14 acres, dates to the 1970s and was typical of civic plazas created in the mid-20th Century. More recently, civic planners have created urban gathering spots more like Campus Martius, which is smaller but programmed with multiple uses including a skating rink in winter and a year-round restaurant.

"At the time, the design was outstanding but it's now obsolete and it's in great disrepair, and this is an opportunity to dig in and redesign the entire plaza," Waymon Guillebeaux, executive vice president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., told the DDA board.

The first phase of the study will cost $150,000. The Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority, the regional board that oversees Cobo, will contribute $100,000 toward the first phase of the study, while the DDA board provides $50,000. No funds have been identified yet for the following phases of the study.

"It's clear that what we have doesn't work," Bade told the meeting. "We've poured money into it more than once just to protect the public." The DDA board debated whether it would be better to wait until money for the entire study and not just the first phase is on hand. But Guillebeaux, who serves on the Cobo regional board as well as working for the DEGC, said it's better to get started now while the $100,000 contribution from Cobo remains on the table.

"Cobo has use for the money, believe me, and if we don't take it now we may lose it," he said.

Phase 1 of the study is expected to take two months. The following phases, if funded, would take another five months, according to DDA documents.

Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or gallagher99@freepress.com ___ (c)2012 the Detroit Free Press Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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