How miscalculation, market trends doomed Palace of Auburn Hills
A quick look at the Palace of Auburn Hills as the Detroit Pistons prepared to move out after 29 years in the venue:
The closing of the Palace of Auburn Hills marked just the latest example of a major suburban anchor dying well before its time.
Along with Northland Center, Summit Place Mall, the Pontiac Silverdome, the old Kmart headquarters in Troy — all these and the Palace were hailed as cutting-edge developments when they opened. Yet all face either demolition or drastic overhauls. And the massive Bloomfield Park mixed-use project proved to be stillborn, facing demolition after stalling out during construction.
That a project as prominent as the Palace of Auburn Hills could face demolition after a mere 29 years of use says something not only about changing market trends but about the massive miscalculation that enabled the past half-century of suburban sprawl.
Back in 1965, Detroit Edison hired the noted Athens-based consulting firm Doxiadis Associates to map out the future of metro Detroit. In a stunningly misguided bit of forecasting, the Doxiadis report projected that metro Detroit’s population would more than double by 2000. Instead, the population fell several million people shy of that.
Yet the Doxiadis forecast was hailed at the time as visionary, and it cleared the way for massive suburban expansion. Suburban growth was already a popular idea with road builders, auto executives, suburban politicians eager to snare a new tax base, and a white middle class eager to flee Detroit.Edward Hustoles, a now-retired urban planner who was active in metro Detroit at the time, said planners believed suburban expansion was needed to relieve the inevitable population pressures.
“We as planners got fooled, too,” Hustoles told me recently. “There was going to be a string of people from Detroit to Port Huron and Lansing and there were going to be about 10 million people. We were going to have a megalopolis. We were going to move out in all directions.
Not only were the population forecasts flat-out wrong, but nobody foresaw that the millennial generation now making key decisions about where to live and work would turn its back on their parents’ ideas of suburban bliss.
Peter Allen has taught real estate development at the University of Michigan for 35 years. He starts each term asking students to say where they want to live and work when they graduate.
“The top cities have always been New York, Chicago, and occasionally Los Angeles, until five years ago,” Allen said. “Five years ago the first brave soul said, ‘I want to go to Detroit.’ Now about a third of the class says, ‘I want to go to Detroit,’ mostly at the expense of Chicago. And none of these kids want to move to the suburbs.”
Instead of enclosed malls and stadiums plopped in a sea of asphalt parking, today’s decision makers want walkable urbanism. It’s a concept that also goes by the term “20-minute neighborhoods.” It describes how today’s millennials, as well as empty-nesters, want to live, work, and play within the same walkable urban district — and not have to rely on the private automobile to get anywhere.
It’s the reason why walkable Detroit neighborhoods like Midtown, Corktown, and West Village are growing in popularity, as well as more walkable suburban downtown districts like Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Birmingham.
Suburban anchors aren’t the only ones to fall lately. Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena closed this month, fated to fall as the Red Wings move to the Little Caesars Arena. It’s telling that the Joe – isolated, reachable mainly by car, a building that ignored the waterfront it sat on and the city nearby – was closed in favor of a new arena district chock full of the walkable restaurants, shops, and residences that millennials like.
Technology plays its part in changing tastes. The rise of on-demand services like Uber and Lyft are enabling millennials to forego car ownership in the sort of walkable districts they now favor.
“They want to cluster among their tribe in dense locations,” Allen said. “They want gritty, character, old authentic buildings they can bring back to life.”
So far only fragmentary ideas are in place for the Palace site (concerts are still booked at the Palace for the next several months). Real estate insiders say a new high-tech research park will probably rise in its place, catering to tech firms that call the I-75 corridor home. The Bloomfield Park site is in line for a mixed-use retail, residential, and hotel project, and the Summit Place Mall may get a youth-oriented sports site. But the fate of the Silverdome, Joe Louis Arena and the Kmart headquarters remains speculative at best.
The dying malls, stadiums, and office parks of suburbia have faced another problem besides changing tastes. Many such suburban projects were built relatively cheaply, with the result that most suburban office buildings or even high-end projects like the Palace have required major overhauls within a generation of opening. Once those projects lose favor in the marketplace, it’s just not worth trying to convert them to new uses.
But the older, sturdier buildings in a city like Detroit adapt well to new uses. The early 1900s-era office buildings lining Woodward Avenue downtown have been successfully converted to residential use and storefront retail. Classics like the Fisher Building and the onetime General Motors headquarters in New Center, both designed by famed architect Albert Kahn, are nearing 100 years of age and still going strong.
Now the Palace, Northland Center and the Silverdome all face demolition. The Palace site probably will see a new high-tech research park takes its place even as the Detroit Pistons follow their fans back downtown, playing their home games, starting in 2017, in the new Little Caesars Arena.
In the end, the malls and stadiums that seemed to anchor the suburbs fell victim to new market trends and their own lack of adaptability. As UM’s Allen said, “If you’re way out in the boondocks, in the hinterlands, with a great big single-purpose asset that’s accessible only by the car, I think it’s going to have to be re-purposed and probably bulldozed.”
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.