"A Catalyst for Downtown": Detroit's Renaissance Center

By Desiderio, Francis | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

"A Catalyst for Downtown": Detroit's Renaissance Center


Desiderio, Francis, Michigan Historical Review


In 1977, the first phase of the Renaissance Center opened on Detroit's riverfront, sparking controversy over the utility of private urban design and development as tools for revitalizing big cities. Supporters and critics of the new structure clashed over both its symbolism and its meaning for Detroit and for urban America in general. Detroit's then-mayor Coleman Young called the Renaissance Center "a statement that speaks for itself" and hailed it as a bold rebuttal to the critics and naysayers who claimed that downtowns could not be revived. Henry Ford II, who brought together the investors who financed the Renaissance Center, called the structure "a catalyst for downtown" and predicted it would revive the area's sagging economy. (1) Critics of the project wondered what message the fortresslike complex was sending to the citizens of Detroit, and questioned the wisdom of concentrating so much activity in one building and in one part of town. Despite the critics, crowds of people visited the Renaissance Center, and it became, if only briefly, a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The center also became the symbol for a rejuvenated Detroit, as tourist guidebooks and maps, television shows, and televised sporting events (even when they took place in the suburbs) used the Renaissance Center to symbolize Detroit. (2)

The Renaissance Center's development was the result of private interests working to create a built environment in downtown Detroit that was comparable to the malls and office parks offered by the suburbs. Businesses that supported the development wanted to create a private space that could easily be controlled and monitored to fashion a safe, crime-free place for shopping, work, and nightlife. People could park, work, eat, shop, and see a movie all at one site, and the result was the creation of a minicity within Detroit. One major impact of the center's configuration was that visitors would no longer contribute to Detroit's street life or spend money in the small businesses they passed along the city's avenues. The business interests behind the Renaissance Center's creation also demanded that the building's design make a statement. However, that statement contained multiple messages. The center's "imagineering" (3) seemed to warn many citizens of Detroit that this was not necessarily a building meant for them. It was not only physically separated from the rest of the city--making pedestrian access difficult-but also the stores inside catered to a middle- to upper-class clientele. Some critics came to see the center as a "fortress" for the middle- and upper-class whites who still wanted a downtown experience. Symbolically, the center brought the suburbs to downtown Detroit.

When it opened, the Renaissance Center comprised one tall hotel tower, four shorter office towers, and a three-story cement-block base. The site was physically separated from the city by large concrete berms, through which the main access road passed. The medieval-castle imagery in the building's design was hard to ignore, and it is equally difficult to dispute that this image damaged the center's reputation throughout the years. The makeover of the side of the structure facing Detroit, including removing the berms, was a top priority when the Renaissance Center was renovated in later years. This fortress for the middle class was not integrated into the city's plans for developing the riverfront. Still, the Renaissance Center demanded the city's attention and it affected the ways in which the city perceived its downtown-revitalization strategy, altering plans already in place and generating new schemes intended to complement the center that were sometimes at odds with the public good. (4)

During the initial planning stages, the Renaissance Center was part of a cluster of responses by Detroit's business class to the 1967 riots. For many Detroiters and for the national press, those riots were the nadir of the country's urban crisis, and they broadcast a warning: What happened in Detroit could happen in other cities. …

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