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What to Do with the Train Station

Love or hate it, but everyone in Detroit knows the Michigan Central Station. The New York Times takes a stab at explaining this love/hate relationship and the building's possibilities.

I love it. And a little birdie told me today that there is hope for it -- it just needs a tenant for the larger, main tower in the back. (There have been half a dozen starts and stops with potential tenants; none have come to fruition.) And then the owners would go forward with its rebirth. We'll see.

Let me know your opinions. I kind of like Phillip Cooley's idea (the guy behind Slows Bar BQ):

Cooley, a restaurant owner who lives across a park from the station, estimates that about 30 sightseers a day show up at its locked gate, cameras raised. He calls the building “an education.”

“A building like that would not be allowed to deteriorate that way and remain standing in any other city,” said Mr. Cooley, who spends some of his free time around the station with neighbors cleaning up and planting grass. “It shows our postindustrial landscape: how nature takes over, what abandonment looks like. There's a lot to be learned from its current state. It needs to be a public space again.”

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  • 1

    It's a beautiful building and no one has photographed it properly catching the huge cornice jutting way beyon the exterior wall.

    When the hardened window putty started cracking and popping out the window panes were free to fall and it was a heartbreak to see the building being exposed.

    I remember taking the "Twilight Limited" to New York and what an experience that was. That trane left Detroit around dinnertime and it dipped into the RR tunnel under the river and you came up in Windsor and traveled across southern Ontario towards Buffalo.

    You went to your stateroom and unpacked and got organized, washing your hands and face and then went to the parlor car. Dinner was announced and you went to the dining car with the thick white linnen tablecloth and napkins and the beautiful setting. Dinner was wonderful and afterwards you went back to the parlor car where some read and others simply looked out the window.

    The porter came to us and announced that the room was ready and you retired to your room. As a child it was a huge surprise because there was now an upper birth that had been pulled down and when you climbed up to the bed with the sheets nicely folded down there was a piece of chocolate square on top of the pillow.

    Awfully comfy and I wonder how many times that Alfed Sloan took that trip. He seemed to prefer keeping in touch with his cronies in NY.

    Listening to the wheels on the tracks and the gentle sway of the car was surefire is putting you to sleep.

    Coming down the Hudson in the morning and having breakfast was a real treat and Dad excitedly pointed out West Point.

    As we approached the city we dove into a tunnel and rode quite some time in the dark. Then we arrived at Grand Central Station. It was a great run.

    And there used to be a radio program called "Grand Central Station!" and it had a fast paced description of the experience and then with the most stentorial voice I have ever heard the commontator proclaimed "GRAND CENTRAL STATION!".

    The huge spaces of these two stations were absolutely exciting.

    And now we see what happened when Al realized his dream.

    The Station and the Book Building remain as the most interesting of the abandoned ones ot the early 20th C.


    • 1.1

      Thanks for sharing that vivid, cinematic vignette, Bill.
      I almost can see, hear and smell the bygone era described so elegantly. Glad you brought us back aboard.

    • 1.2

      I believe that you took the DETROITER... That was the overnight Detroit - New York service. The TWILIGHT LIMITED was a Detroit - Chicago service..

      No matter - what is important is the Terminal itself, and its potential for being a part of the Revitalization of The 'D'...

  • 2

    Here we go again engaging in Detroiter's favorite hobby...babling enlessly about how things "used to be". We can never seem to look ahead and imagine what could be or what the future could be, we just always cling to the past as if it somehow is magically going to return.

    We hung on in vain to Hudson's for twenty years and to Tiger Stadium for ten before we finally accepted the fact that nothing was going to come of either relic of the past. The result is a new building with 5000 new workers downtown and a new life for a district that was near death when the deteriorating hulk of a building stood on that site,. The new building has provided for a re-birth of sorts of Woodward because Hudson's is gone, not in spite of iit. Same for Comerica Park and the old YMCA that used to occupy that site. Paradise Valley? Gone, but now we have Ford Field.

    Give it up....old Detroit is dead and its long since past time to bury the corpse. If the Central depot had a use, it would be there now. It's a lovely old relic, but a relic nonetheless. RIP and lets move on!

  • 3

    There's a big difference between holding onto a "building" like Tiger Stadium and an absolute treasure like the Michigan Central Station. It would be a shame to lose this building, not because of memories but because it is a building that can't be recreated for any price and it is absolutely beautiful, inside and out (my opinion, of course).

    • 3.1

      Totally agree. The Depot is my favorite building in all of Detroit, bar none. So beautiful, so sad. I'm thankful I got to catch a train there once, when it was still breathing. Now it sits, waiting.
      For once in our lives, let's not tear something down we can never replace.

    • 3.2

      That "absolute tresure" has no viable economic or social use. As a matter of fact, it was never even fully occupied when it was first built because it was based on a technology....trains....that the very city in which it was built was in the process of making obsolete! It was a whie elephant then and it is a white elephant corpse today.
      Look, I love old architecture, too. I also loved my Grandmother but when she died we buried her and held on to the pictures and memories of her life. Buildings, no matter how architecturally significant they may be, have a life. That life can be extended when and if a new use can be found for them. Otherwise, they are just "junk" sitting in the attic collecting dust and waiting until someone takes them out to the curb.
      There have been proposal after proposal of what do do with this relic but nothing has ever come of any of them. A new police HQ? Rejected. A new City Hall? Rejected. Mixed use residential? Rejected. A museum, a city park, a casino? All rejected!
      It's time to stop hoping for what will never be again and look to the future. Remember it fondly but lay it to rest.

  • 4

    Thanks, I trains to both NY and Chicago. Twilight sounds more logical since it was an evening and night ride.

    The train to Chicago was called the Mercury and had a round ended last car which for me was fantastic. Had a speedometer as well at the top of the built in seats and I remember staring at it for the longest time because my Father told me that the train could hit 100mph. So I was very disappointed and if I remember correctly it barely exceeded 60mph. The Canadian has such a car and they put out coffees and teas in the morning and fruit slices in the afternoon. Absolutely delightful.

    The things that are fun in these large architectural spaces are the sounds, huge reverberation times and the sounds of people walking on the marble and the announcements over the loud speakers, the hustle and the bustle.

    When Alan Kapro did his happenings in Grand Central Station it must have been great fun. Did you see the video of the people in grand central acting as if they were going about their business and then all of a sudden started dancing and put on one heck of a production... Absolutely fun.

    Cities were fun. They are like a party. If everyone walks away from the party saying it ain't cool anymore then the City is slated for Ron and his demolition crews.

    Either the excitement comes back or you have the Death and Demolition if they can afford to do that..

    45 years ago Seattle and Tacoma looked like they were on their last legs, same for Downtown Ann Arbor.
    If you can hang on long enough until a bright generation comes in and takes over then you can get somewhere. We are suffering from the lack of a bright generation.


  • 5

    Matty Moroun owns the Michigan Central Station. That is one of only two things that we know. The other is that billionaire Matty Moroun has not spent one damn red cent of his own money into maintaining or renovating this bldg.

    There are questions that need to be answered: Does Matty Moroun pay property taxes on this bldg? If so, how much? If not, why not and who is letting him off the hook?

    From my understanding, many of the empty and abandoned bldgs in Detroit are owned by out of state investors speculating on Detroit's eventual comeback. No money is spent by these owners on maintaining these bldgs. Are they even paying property taxes? Besides becoming eye sores dragging down Detroit's image, they are dangerous safety hazards. That alone is criminal and the owners, Matty Moroun included, need to be fined and jailed. And that includes the corrupt public officials who are allowing this to happen.

    • 5.1

      OK, then what?

    • 5.2

      This discussion was generated by a front-page story Saturday in the New York Times. Anyone reading the story comes away with a true picture of the value of this building and a fair analysis of what's been happening to save it. What you don't see in the story is the mention that it's owned by Matty Moroun. The story is a perfect example of the kind of fair, open, helpful dialogue we can have about a subject that's important to Detroit when we're not distracted by irrelevant, and often erroneous, attacks on an 82-year-old man who assumed ownership of this already stripped and dilapidated building in the mid-1990s only because the previous owner defaulted on a loan. Matty pays taxes and has invested a lot of his money to secure the building, on security, and to study possible reuses for the depot. But you can't expect any owner to restore and renovate a building this size simply on speculation that somebody may come by some day and want to move in. This has nothing to do with profit, but with sustainability. There is never an unending source of cash, so even if you renovate the depot, if no one moves in and starts paying rent, eventually the building will fall into disrepair again.
      And before you start throwing people in jail, it's a good idea to establish that a crime has been committed and that the person you're accusing is guilty. Apparently, it's OK to waive rights that all Americans enjoy for a person like Matty Moroun, simply because he's wealthy. It is pure naiveté to think that the billions Moroun makes all goes into his pockets and supports only a lavish personal lifestyle. Somehow we don't accept the fact that the income supports a large transportation enterprise that has 9,000 employees in three countries. All of those employees pay taxes, the hundreds of facilities Moroun has across North America pay property taxes.
      Let's talk about the building. That's what's important.

    • 5.3

      truthvalue - thanks so much for your illuminating reply. You are 'spot on' in that it is not the risk-taking, investor, 'rich' class that are to be blamed - rather they are to be sought-out and embraced as the only potential saviours for Detroit.

      It is the leftist 'eat the rich' rantings by jeff9809 and others that one can truly trace the roots of Detroits demise - and its transformation from a City that makes . We all know it - that despite BILLIONS of "investment" by 'The Government' in URBAN RENEWAL, "PROGRAMS", WELFARE, etc - Nothing has gotten better in/for/by Detroit. I assert that 'all good things' that have happened in Detroit - historically or recently - have been the inputs and initiatives of individuals like those that jeff9809 would have 'thrown in jail' - just because they have been more successful than Jeff who seems to be suffering from some variant of Socialist Inadequacy Syndrome...

  • 6

    When I lived in downtown Detroit as a student at Wayne State in the 60s, and later worked on the east side in the early 70s, the quality of the old but deteriorated buildings was a constant and personal source of distress. Why does Detroit have such a hard time, even now, seeing the value in preserving those parts and pieces that hold and bring beauty and substance.

    I hope that the folks in charge of the new vision for Detroit will see a way to keep the train station in place and make it whole again. That whole section of the city, and the city as a whole, would benefit. It could also be a the hub for a new public transportation system. Yet another way Detroit and the rust belt could signal a change in the way America moves.

  • 7

    I believe they do pay taxes. Unfortunately, the taxes are based on the value of the property they own. Thus, the more worthless a building becomes the less it takes for these "speculators" to "maintain" the property per year. Additionally, most of the abandon buildings are such nuisances that they bring down the property value of everything that surrounds them. So the vacant buildings not only produce little revenue for the city, but also drive down the property taxes of all the surrounding lots and further reduce the tax revenue the city takes in per year.

    In my opinion, these speculators and investors are the true villains of the city.

    • 7.1

      The true "villain" of the city and any city is the way in which taxes are levied. Taxes are stupidly based on the assumed market value of the property and as such actually encourage lack of maintenace, abandonment, and eventual demolition. The math is simple....if I have a building that I improve and occupy I have to pay taxes on the "value" If let it run down to the point where the "value" falls then I pay less taxes. If I tear it down and the property has virtually no value then I pay no taxes. The falacy of that system is that all the infrastructure suuch as streets, sewers, water supply lines, street lighting, etc. still run past my property yet I don't contribute a dime to maintain or replace them. Same for services such as police, fire, sanitation....they drive past my empty lot but since I don't have anything that is considered of "value" on that property, I don't have to pay for that.

      A more equitable and sensible method of levying taxes would be a land use based tax. Every property is classified as to the allowable use through the zoning ordinances. Each property, regardless of what's on it should be assessed a certain dollar amount per square footage of the property....for example, residential pays X per s.f., commercail pays Y per s.f., retail pays Z per s.f. and so on. This would do several things. First, it would spread the cost of operating the city to ALL proerty owners in proportion the the area of the city that they own regardless of the assumed "value" of what is on the property. Secondly, it would encourage continued use of the property and discorage someone from leaving a building to deteriorate or leave it empty. Thirdly, it would truly reflect the actual cost that a sspecific proerty puts on city services and not leave it up to only the occupied proerties to shoulder the burden. Finally, it would provide a steady and predictable revenue stream and even when property "values" drop, as they have in the past several years, the taxes paid for the operation of the city would remain constant.
      If this current recession, falling property values and the resultant shortfall in revenue for virtually all Michigan's cities has shown us one thing it's that a tax structure based on retail market "value" is foolish, shortsighted, and bears no relationship to the cost of operating a city. If the Charter Commission wants to really make a significant difference in the future of the city it needs to look very seriously at how we collect taxes and how our current sytsem rewards those people who allow buildings to crumble or who tear them down. A land-use based makes sense.

  • 8

    siu44, there is one way to offset the lost revenue of reduced property values and that is to levy some very heavy fines. Renovate the property or pay the fines. Don't pay the fines - go straight to jail.

    • 8.1

      Agreed, although there are some serious 5th amendment concerns with that kind of penalty. Wayne County has actually had some success with its Nuisance Abatement Program in getting some of these deadbeat owners to shape up. The threat of litigation is what spurred the new development plans for the long abandoned Broderick Tower.

  • 9

    The Station is part of the Federal Rail System, it inherits some of the Federal guidelines and restrictions. It does not make practical sense to move forward with any "commercial" plans because of these restrictions. This property is best suited as a government facility.

    The infrastructure is capable to accomidate vehicular traffic, shipping traffic, and extremely large amounts of pedestrian traffic. The structure could be large enough to house several City of Detroit municipal entities; Head Quarters for DFD, DPD, DPW, DPS; Courthouse, Jail, Police, Fire.

    The biggest hurdle that I'm aware of is the current location of these municipal entities, and their dependence on close proximity of City Hall. The expense to renovate the structure would be justified by the shared facility expense over a 30 year period. The renovation expense could also be offset by lease space on site for business services such as; uniform sales, cleaners, barber, salon, deli, buffet, bank, law firm, etc.

    • 9.1

      I am personally aware of a serious architectural study that was done quietly about five years ago to convert the station into Police HQ along with various other functions. The study showed that a conversion to accommodate those functions was not feasible and would cost several times what a completely new structure would cost. While the building is essentially structurally sound it lacks the ability to construct modern heating and cooling systems, elevators, toilet rooms, electrical requirements and neccessary voice and data infrastructure. Much of the building would have had to be ripped apart just too get the new systems in place and then would have resulted in spaces that would have been only adequate at best and the kind that would not accommodate changes over time. The operations costs were calculated and found to be far too much, too. The idea was rejected and since that time no one has been interested in trying to make the the thing work financially for private tenants.
      It's a whie elephant....a gorgeous one....but a white elephant nonetheless.

    • 9.2

      Wrong, napper1. I have the study in my hands. Moroun's company would pay for the renovation and Detroit would have leased space. The city's cost would have been about a third of what it would cost to build its own. And this proposal wasn't "rejected." For various reasons, the city didn't pursue it. It didn't go to the council.

  • 10

    @ truthvalue
    "Matty Maroun, who also owns the Ambassador Bridge - has said until there is a tenant and a deal lined up to develop the property, he will not spend any significant money on preserving it or cleaning the landmark up. For that reason, this once majestic landmark sits as a monument to Detroit's decline and decay." Quote from: Buildings of

    Matty Moroun's trucking empire and the 9,000 people it employs is totally irrelevant to this issue. The above quote which summarizes his attitude and intent is. The issue here is responsibility of ownership. It is the responsibility of the owner, whether it be a home owner or business owner, to repair and maintain their property. Not to do so jepordizes property values and the image of an entire city. Matty Moroun has owned Michigan Central for at least 15 years and has done NOTHING. So sorry if I don't get all teary-eyed over lovable, 82 year old billionare Matty but his only interest is the All American greenback. Ask anyone who has had to deal with him including the governments of Detroit, Michigan, United States, and Canada.

    If you are at all interested in what imagination and creative financing can accomplish, you might google the St. Louis Union Station which underwent a $150 million restoration. That could be Michigan Central Station as well. Only one thing stands in our way - Matty Moroun.

    • 10.1

      jeff9809: You say Moroun's jobs aren't relevant, but then you say he's only concerned about making money. The money he makes has to sustain a large business and all those employees. Let's see. Do I spend $150 million to renovate a building that doesn't have any commitment from tenants, or should I use the money to save jobs at my companies? Renovating is easy. Sustaining the investment is the trick. If I spend $150 million today and there are no tenants, what shape will the building be in 20 years from now? No builder, anywhere, is speculating on anything these days.

  • 12

    @truthvalue: I didn't say Moroun's jobs aren't relevant, I said Moroun's empire, jobs etc are totally irrelevant to this issue. Big difference. The issue is "responsibility of ownership" which Mr. Moroun has sadly neglected to demonstrate regarding the Michigan Central Station.

    To put this in the proper perspective, visit This huge and beautiful bldg was totally renovated using Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits. Since the Michigan Central Station was designated as a National Historic Bldg in 1975, it should have easily qualified for these funds, that is if anyone (read Matty Moroun) had bothered to make the effort.

    Regarding tenants, the St Louis Union Station has a hotel, various shops and a market place, restaurants, model train displays, and an entertainment complex with live entertainment among other things. Amazing what a little imagination, desire and effort can accomplish and at the same time how sadly neglectful is Matty Moroun.

  • 13

    I need to correct statements I made in my last post.

    "This huge and beautiful bldg was totally renovated using Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credits." is misleading. FHRTC is only one method used to help finance this project, not the only way as implied.

    "Since the Michigan Central Station was designated as a National Historic Bldg in 1975, it should have easily qualified for these funds ..." FHRTC is a tax credit, and a substantial one, but it is not a fund.

    Sorry for the sloppy writing, but not as sorry as I am for the neglect this city is suffering.


  • 14

    I love that building. Fingers crossed that someone steps up to the plate.

  • 15

    Wow! That is quite a rant on your part kioti, and a personal attack as well. But true to the ravings of the far right, you distort the message and take things out of context. I don't recall condeming the entire 'rich' class, do you? I never targeted Roger Penske, Peter Karmanos, Mike Illitch and the Illitch family, the Ford's, Matt Cullen, Dave Bing for blame. They are all wealthy and successful beyond my dreams and certainly beyond my abilities. They are the ones who use their influence, their imagination and risk their wealth to build something that benefits not only themselves, but the rest of us as well. They built this city and for that they have my undying respect and gratitude. They are truly the heros of Detroit and my heros as well.

    Then there are those individuals who I would throw in jail in a heartbeat. They are your heros kioti - the slum landlords. Those individuals who use their wealth to consume for their benefit alone, who buy up properties and sit on them while they rot, who milk an asset for all the profit they can wring out of it and then leave their mess for the rest of us to clean up.

    There are your heros kioto, the "Greed is Good" Gordon Gekko's and Matty Moroun's. And there are my heros, the Penske's, Karmanos, Illitch's and Ford's. The Greedy vs the Ethical ...And you can't even tell them apart.

    • 15.1


      Intellectually vapid, attempting to 'sort, sift, and stereotype' those that do not agree with you, and certainly misinformed...with perhaps an edge of 'moral-ier' than thou...

      Wow - quite a reaction... U Kin Tell When U BIN BIT by Kioti!

  • 16

    I agree with you that it's wrong to be "attempting to 'sort, sift, and stereotype' those that do not agree with you...with perhaps an edge of 'moral-ier' than thou..."?

    But I noticed that you also just wrote:
    "It is the leftist 'eat the rich' rantings by jeff9809 and others that one can truly trace the roots of Detroits demise... despite BILLIONS of "investment" by 'The Government' in URBAN RENEWAL, "PROGRAMS", WELFARE, etc - Nothing has gotten better in/for/by Detroit"

    Are you really saying that none of these government programs have helped in any way? Leftists alone caused the demise of Detroit? And presumably NONE of the businesses who left town or off-shored jobs to boost profits, or wealthy landowners who fought to preserve privilege through racist practices, should ever take blame or responsibility for what's happened? Entitlement and abuse of privilege occurs across all social classes.

    There are responsible and effective businesses, and there are responsible and effective government programs. Shouldn't we be trying, like you imply but don't show, to focus on what works, vs. who's leftist and who's rightist, who's rich and who's poor?

  • 17

    Over the years a number of my students have conducted a "Quick Policy Analysis" on the question of what to do with the Michigan Central Station. Clearly, it is now privately owned and the owner can do with it whatever he or she wants that's within the law. Students' problem analysis reveals a market failure--the Station generates negative externalities--it's unsightly, potentially dangerous, and has diminished neighboring property values. Little has been done to address these problems. Solution analysis identifies several options. Leaving the Station standing and letting it continue to deteriorate does not address the negative externalities but does preserve the option of doing something with the Station in the future. Tearing down the Station addresses the negative externalities. Using the Station for another purpose, while seemingly desirable, is not feasible, since it has little or no discernible economic value. The students over the years always reach the same conclusion--tear it down!

  • 18

    Why is it that Europeans save their history - preserve their buildings - like time markers - but we Americans haven't yet learned to? In less than 100 years we spend millions of dollars to build something magnificient and then watch it decay. Why? Maybe we need to have places for our ghosts to reside.

    Michigan Central Station
    "Lizzie Ross"

    She stayed well within the shadows
    as she pressed her fingers in real time
    against the grimy ticket counter glass.
    Lizzie, she spelled out
    and then the moment passed.
    The voices drew her in.

    "Did you hear that? It sounded like a child's voice."
    "O.K., I'm ready to start.
    One blink for yes, and don't blink for no."
    "Please try and answer if you can."
    "Are you a boy?"
    No response.
    "A girl," the voice concluded.
    "Are you here alone?"
    No response.
    "She's not alone."
    "Are you meeting someone on the train?"
    She found all of her energy;
    the light blinked once.

    More questions but Lizzie drifted,
    exhaused she shifted
    against the dank wooden bench
    and closed her eyes.
    Doric columns lifted to glory.
    Lizzie now stood near a dark and hollow door,
    she stood near the platform
    on the cracked and broken floor.
    A black steel engine passed,
    it screeched, and rocked and stopped,
    and in the vast abyss
    a soldier stepped off.

    "She's gone. I don't think we're going to get
    anything else. Let's pack it up."

    The morning light filtered through
    broken windows of majestic elations
    revealing still and decrepit views of
    Michigan Central Station.

    Gear was loaded up, equipment carried out
    while a whistle in the distance
    brought in
    more passengers, no doubt.
    They stopped to listen.

    Lizzie Ross stood near
    the dark and hollow doors,
    she stood near the platform
    on the cracked and broken floor.
    The black steel engine passed
    the train screeched, and rocked then stopped,
    and in the vast abyss,
    a soldier stepped off.

    By - J.Darrow
    "Lizzie Ross" from Poems of Ghosts, Evil and Superstition. Level 4 Press, Inc. 2009

    Too bad there aren't even any ticket counters or wooden benches left.....

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