Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tearing Down the Past

Flint is getting a new IRS building. Melissa Burden of The Flint Journal reports:

The U.S. General Services Administration in late July awarded a contract to Elba Road Development LLC of Lapeer for a new IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center. That group will construct a 14,470-square-foot, one-story building at 901 N. Saginaw St., said David Wilkinson, a regional spokesman for the GSA.

The IRS and its 44 employees have outgrown its leased office, 815 S. Saginaw St. at Court Street, its home since 1995. The office is one of six such centers across Michigan.

"The IRS really needed more parking and accessibly," said Donald Schaffer, a sales associate for Siegel Realty in Flint Township, who added there is a bus stop near the front of the new site.

But like many Flint building projects — especially when it involves the need for "more parking" — this one has a catch. Two vacant brick buildings that have a lot of potential at 901 and 915 N. Saginaw Street just north of St. Michael's will be demolished.

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  1. I know the answer to this is probably money or lack of will, but why not rehab the two buildings, perhaps fill in the gap between them, and install the IRS center in the refurbished, architecturally interesting result? Instead we'll get a drab building that looks like a strip mall. This happend on Jefferson Ave. in Detroit, which is now dotted with ugly, cheap looking strip malls.

  2. A piece of my heart hits the rubble when these old land marks are taken down. Even when the reason is a valid one. unclebuck

  3. Sable -- " or lack of will."

    It's definitely money and yo, Melissa -- you need to follow the bucks closely on this. With an eye to cui bono -- developer, designer, speculative adjoiners -- watch closely for 'unforseeable changes' in project scope and spatial extent.

    Or maybe I'm just cynical....

  4. Let's hear it for more parking! Hurray! :)

  5. I'm sure these buildings "have a lot of potential" but so do about a million other buildings in Flint. We hear this a lot in Detroit, too. Sure, it would be great to save and rehab every old building in town, it's a noble idea. But, alas, it's cheaper to build new.

    So this means building permits, and presumably a few construction jobs in a city that, I hear, has an unemployment rate now higher than the national worst during the Depression. Let's not miss the forest for the trees here.

    And PS: As much as "more parking" is an easily-ridiculed reason for needing a new space, until there's some other way to get around Flint besides the car it's a completely legitimate one.

  6. Will, I'm not disagreeing. It does seem to cost more to rehab in many cases, although not always. But there's also a cost involved in having a city that looks like a strip mall. There might come a time when larger numbers of people might actually be attracted to Flint's archtitecture and the fact that a smallish town has such cool buildings. That won't happen, of course, if most of the city looks like a tarted up party store.And rehab projects require permits and construction workers as well. I just feel that these buildings have a value that extends beyond the cost of rehab'ing versus new construction.

  7. I agree that there is a great deal of value in the aesthetic nature of a city. In a perfect world, of course I would rather see the IRS, say, work with Uptown to rehab the Woolsorth's Building or something similar.

    The thing is, we just can't be picky right now. Now that doesn't mean that I would support leveling Carriage Town to build a Wal-Mart, but if it's tear down a couple of rather unremarkable old buildings or let the IRS amble off to an office park in Flint Township or Grand Blanc then I know where I come down.

    I know, I know, I sound like a jerk and I don't mean to. I really do care deeply about New Urbanism and creating a sense of place. I simply think that Flint's situation is a little too dire to fight every good fight. There are a lot of good projects going on in downtown, we can afford a few that are less than ideal.

  8. ... and to add to Geewhy's comment, let's face it, anyone who's looked at a Google map can see Flint has enough parking... it's just not efficient parking... or maybe it's not safe parking... not sure the reason, but unless you can design a parking structure that people will want to use because they know it's safe and safe to walk to, Flint will always be "needing" new parking lots.

  9. There might be parking in Flint, but not right there. I have to agree with Will on this one. It's not the heart of across from what was once trying to be a mall (Windmill Place) and a school, I beleive. Can we really call these landmarks? Downtown Flint looks great with all the rehabing...those of you who have moved away should come visit and bring your tourist dollars with you!

  10. As an architect, I was involved with several significant preservation related projects in the city of Flint during the late 70s/early 80s. As a sidebar to other research, I vaguely recall learning that the building shown, (with the prominent center gable), was built as a Packard Motor Car showroom during, or just prior to, the 1920s.

    Such premium automobile brands of the era used aspirational marketing techniques that extended even to the architectural cues of the sales floor itself. You may have to use your imagination to fill in the missing details, but the building still possesses stylistic elements that hint at such arrival imagery as the main entry to a gentleman's manor home, or the valeted entrance to an exclusive country club. The tall windows are a tell-tale sign that the sales floor may have followed the trend of the day and resembled the lobby of a luxury hotel, and probably incorporated a grand staircase leading to a mezzanine where one could gaze upon the vehicles from his place at the top.

    Corny by today's cynical standards? Maybe, but this aspiration to achieve lofty goals, expressed for all to experience in bricks and mortar, is one of the things that made this town a great place to live. Construction jobs and parking spaces are not the exclusive domain of the underachieving strip mall genre. An imaginitive designer, (when one is chosen on this merit), can create great places to park, but can do so only when it is understood that his client values such a result. It is about vision, pride, and the will of a community to hold developers who shape their built environment accountable. Good or bad, the manner in which a community approaches such unremarkable endeavors as manipulating its historic architectural fabric to find space for an IRS service center, can also expose its modern day state of aspiration, hope, and self esteem.

    Because it is such a tough environment now in which to take the higher ground, it is more important than ever to strive for and encourage top tier efforts, and I applaud and marvel at those that are doing great things in this city that do just that. Buildings such as this historic automobile dealership, when you can find them, make dramatically pleasing spaces for just about any use, including IRS service centers. It is ironic that the developer is not going to take advantage of historic rehabilitation tax credits when working on a building for the IRS. It is just another entry on a long list of opportunities lost.

  11. I agree with geewhy and GaryG about these older buildings in Flint, Where did the people park during the days these building were in their prime.
    Fain's Furniture,Flint Indian Motorcycle Shop,Kriby's Vacuums Shop Palmer's Furniture and the apartments above and across the street was the Reagent Theater and a another Furniture store I can't remember the name of. People parked on the street or at Sears Automotive and walked back to these places. GarryG's History is very colorful and powerful in it's intent. However, it is not often when the Fed change's its mind on what the majority recommends.

  12. Really nice post, GaryG.

    What would you guess might be a rough range of percentage difference in project cost to bring in an elegant solution that still achieved the necessary goals re ADA, Energy Star, asbestos cleanup, etc.?

  13. Part of the 'elegance' of an 'elegant' solution is derived from a final cost that is commensurate with what the project can support. So much of achieving this end is based on how creatively the more expensive portions of the building process can be balanced against those that might be made to be less so.

    For instance, because the width of North Saginaw may not be as critical today as when it was once a major arterial, angled parking could be installed in the current curb lanes on both sides of the street at this block. This approach not only imparts a nice urban feel and visual buffer between the sidewalk and traffic, but provides possibly all the spaces necessary for the cost of no more than paint striping. Money saved on eliminating the need for building demoliton, site prep, parking lot surfacing, lighting, and the purchase of land to accommodate the lot, can instead be put into the work uniquely associated with rehabilitating the historic buildings. At the same time, a human scaled, pedestrian friendly streetscape is created, and part of the city's cultural heritage is preserved.

    This is only one example, but other equally intriguing ideas to address the challenges involved are always possible; limited only by the cooperaton, tools, talent, vision, and will of those involved in the design process.

  14. Okay so I'm a bit late... but I had to put my 2 cents in on this. There are those that say 'we can't be picky', but honestly, yes we can. Why should we settle for something that so poorly fits what Flint needs to be? I'm not saying we should expect gold plated buildings, but this is nothing more than a cheap strip mall.

    This is not the first time the federal government has done such a thing - Look at the new Social Security office, it's no better. If they had had ANY foresight, they would have built - or better yet, rehabbed - a single building closer to the core, housing both the IRS and the SSA, and possibly other federal agencies. There's plenty of buildings that would have worked fine for their purposes, and brought more foot traffic to downtown Flint. Instead, they act like it's suburbia and plop down ugly single-story buildings, with dedicated parking lots, far away from everything else, inviting everyone who needs their services to ignore the rest of the area. In fact, by drawing that foot traffic away from the current location, it will actually HURT downtown. That's not the way to contribute to the revitilization of an area. The apologists like WIll will just point to the (temporary) construction jobs and say things like 'it's better than nothing'. I beg to differ, it's WORSE than nothing.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at