Tag Archives: Detriot

Adaptive Reuse in Detroit


THESIS: Rather than allowing old, industrial buildings fall to ruin, the city of Detroit should revitalize these buildings to become sustainable and viable centers of activity through adaptive reuse.


On July 18, 2013, the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. A city that once was bustling full of citizens and a booming automotive industry has since suffered economic turmoil. Its people left after the success of the postwar years, a 63% decrease in population since 1950 and a 26% decrease since 2000. The unemployment rate varies from 27.8% (2009) to 10% (2015). It has the largest violent crime rate seen in any city in the United States. Most startling is the amount of unused, abandoned land. There are currently 78,000 structures accompanied by 66,000 lots currently sitting idle, falling to ruin in the city of Detroit. These abandoned sites become magnets to violent crimes with 60% of reported arson cases happening here. Rather than allowing old, industrial buildings fall to ruin, the city of Detroit should revitalize these buildings to become sustainable and viable centers of activity through adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse is the act of creating new built opportunities within existing built forms. It involves the repurposing of a structure that is usually abandoned and in unceasing decay. Adaptive reuse can accommodate for the social, political and economic progress within a community. It is found most often that these abandoned, industrial buildings are located in prime, dynamic spaces such as along a waterfront or in proximity to historic landmarks. It is a sustainable approach for architectural design, especially in cities such as Detroit. By reusing the existing structure we decrease the environmental pressure resulting from transportation and production of materials. Instead of inevitably becoming a burden on a community, an industrial building can serve as a hub for urban life and create opportunities for natural urban development.

Adaptive reuse has proven successful in other industrial locations such as the Highline Park in New York City’s Meatpacking district, Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, and Station Square in Pittsburgh. The ability to bring life to these once booming industrial centers is key to bringing life to the city as a whole once more. Michigan Central Station is a critical structure for adaptive reuse. With a space large enough for a train on the ground floor and an 18 story tower with hotel and office space above, this is prime real estate sitting vacant. Another site is the Harbor Terminal building. This huge warehouse currently sits vacant, but is an ideal candidate for adaptive reuse that could be turned into a multi-functional building. Hotel Eddystone and Park Avenue Hotels are other great locations for adaptive reuse. These abandoned hotels can serve as the catalyst for creating a new residential community.

Seeing the success of great urban works in cities such as Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and New York City, we believe adaptive reuse is the future for the success of revitalizing cities in our coming generation. As students pursuing sustainability leadership degrees, the “greenness” of a building is a cause we support. We can take these old buildings, install updated systems, insert new program, and create a sustainable, viable space for the community. We believe that adaptive reuse could be just the change Detroit needs. While proposals have been made for sites such as Michigan Central Station, no actual renovation has begun. Action is needed.   


  • Thornton, BJ. “THE GREENEST BUILDING (IS THE ONE THAT YOU DON’T BUILD!) Effective Techniques for Sustainable Adaptive Reuse/Renovation.” JOURNAL OF GREEN BUILDING 6.1 (2011; 1901): 1-7.
  • Meltzer, Emily. “Adaptive Reuse of the Seaholm Power Plant: Uniting Historic Preservation and Sustainable Practices.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2011.
  • Donofrio, Gregory. “Preservation by Adaptation: Is it Sustainable?” Change Over Time 2.2 (2012): 106-31.
  • Hollander, Justin B., Niall Kirkwood, and Julia L. Gold. Principles of Brownfield Regeneration: Cleanup, Design, and Reuse of Derelict Land. Washington: Island Press, 2010.
  • Green, Jessica M. “Adaptive Reuse in Post-Industrial Detroit: Testing the Viability of the Engine Works.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2008.
  • Ro, Sam. “11 Depressing Stats About Detroit.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 18 July 2013. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
  • Spivak, Jeffrey. “Adaptive Use Is Reinventing Detroit.” Urban Land Magazine. The Magazine of the Urban Land Institute, 14 Sept. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.

Photograph of “The concourse, looking east” in Michigan Central Station                                                                                                               Photography: Zach Fein                                                                             Architects: Warren & Wetmore, Reed & Stem.