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Martin Harper

Revitalizing Detroit’s Lower Woodward Neighborhood:
Opportunities for Residential Adaptive Re-Use of Historic Commercial Buildings

        During the early part of the 20th century, Detroit became a major American city as hundreds of thousands of people moved there from all over the United States and from all over the world. These people were looking for decent paying jobs and were eager to take part in the rise of the automobile industry. Detroit quickly became the fourth largest city in the United States and remained that way from 1920 though the middle of the 20th century; at which time, the population was just under 2 million. Along with this population explosion came a tremendous amount of new building construction; commercial buildings were built in the downtown area and residential buildings were built in the surrounding neighborhoods. During the 1920s, Detroit trailed only New York City and Chicago in the construction of new skyscrapers.

        These prosperous times for Detroit began to end in the 1960s and 1970s when the city started to experience serious urban social tensions. Families and businesses began to relocate outside the city, leaving many historically significant buildings behind in their wake. Today Detroit’s population is under 1 million and many historic commercial buildings sit vacant and in danger of being demolished.

        Recently, downtown Detroit started to show some signs of an urban rebirth. The city’s professional baseball and football teams have built new stadiums downtown, Compuware has built an all new building for more than 4000 employees, and General Motors took over the city’s 1970s Renaissance Center and moved their corporate headquarters into the complex. While these are significant signs of life for the city, there continues to be a lack of residential housing in the downtown area. Given the sizeable stock of vacant historic commercial buildings—the opportunity is ripe for adaptive re-use projects. The difficulty is that there are so many vacant buildings that it makes the task of choosing the development opportunity with the greatest potential next to impossible.

        This thesis is designed to recommend a way of prioritizing Detroit’s many adaptive re-use opportunities by developing a system of decision criteria. The thesis content will include an exploration of the history of this historic part of Detroit, a documentation of the historic buildings that exist in this downtown area today, an evaluation of recent development activity in the city, an assessment of the opportunity for residential housing, an examination of the available financial incentives and the development of specific prioritization criteria. The thesis will conclude with a recommendation of the five best building opportunities for residential adaptive re-use.


           Martin Harper received both his BSE in industrial engineering and MBA in marketing from the University of Michigan. He worked in advertising for 12 years at Leo Burnett with a variety of clients including General Motors, Kraft Foods, Morgan Stanley, Hallmark, Procter & Gamble, Kellogg’s and Polaroid. Marty hopes to combine his strategic marketing background with historic preservation.


Thesis Advisor: Vincent L. Michael, Associate Professor, Chair, Historic Preservation          

Thesis Reader: Lisa DiChiera, Director of Advocacy, Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois

Second Reader: T. Gunny Harboe, AIA, Vice President, Preservation Group McClier




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