A Tactical Preservation Strategy for Detroit’s Conners Creek Power Plant
At this year’s BUILD Conference in Detroit participants will engage in an interactive lab session to reimagine the use of the Conners Creek Power Plant, decommissioned since the late 2000s. The BUILD Lab, “Tactical Preservation for Detroit's Industrial Legacy,” is a partnership between GMF, the City of Detroit, and site owner, DTE Energy. The lab will leverage BUILD’s international network of policymakers, architects, urban planners, and practitioners to brainstorm adaptive reuse strategies that can bring the iconic site back to productive and sustainable use.
Back in the 1970s, adaptive reuse (AR), defined as the process of reusing or recycling a new site or building for a new purpose, was mostly dominated by an emergency, large-scale, top-down approach. Its primary goal was to eliminate an environmental hazard, and, often times, cities adopted it only after massive and successful citizens’ mobilization efforts.
Today, AR is fortunately seen through the lens of opportunity rather than risks, as in Detroit where there are more than 66,000 vacant buildings and 6.1 square miles of vacant industrial sites ripe for innovative ideas and reuse strategies that could unlock a host of social, economic, and environmental opportunities and become assets for the city.
Already in 2015, GMF’s Urban and Regional Policy Program partnered with Detroit Future City on the Detroit Opportunity Site initiative, a transatlantic dialogue that explores best practices in the reuse of vacant industrial land and buildings. Through a series of U.S. and European case studies, The Detroit Opportunities Sites initiative showed that Detroit’s liabilities can become new assets with local and global relevance. Detroit may take lessons from sites like the one in De Ceuvel (Amsterdam, the Netherlands), where a temporary eco-community of refurbished houseboats was built on a former brownfield; Kraftwerk, a former power station turned into an exhibition and event space; Holzmarkt, which aims to create a new waterfront urban quarter based on a model of citizen cooperation in Berlin; or Lingotto, in Torino, where a large FIAT automobile factory, once one of the largest car manufacturing facilities in Europe, converted into a multipurpose facility in the 1980s.
Examples are also abundant in the United States, as illustrated by Matteo Robiglio in “The Adaptive Reuse Toolkit — How Cities Can Turn Their Industrial Legacy into Infrastructure for Innovation and Growth.” See for instance, Fishtown in Delaware. Two architect brothers known as the McDonald brothers had been developing Fishtown for two decades. They purchased derelict buildings and plots, and through AR they engineered a neighborhood of eco-efficient and affordable housing carved from the original urban fabric. This innovation began to attract people back to Fishtown, cultivating a sense of community in the process. Or Bakery Square Project in Pittsburgh. Adapted from the former Nabisco Bakery, it will evolve into a business, research, leisure, and residential space. By 2016, the Bakery Square project created 2,200 jobs by drawing in Google’s second most important headquarters in the United States, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Technology Development Center, and the University of Pittsburgh Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, among others.
In Philadelphia, through the Transatlantic Cities Forum, GMF’s Urban and Regional Policy Program injected a transatlantic perspective into the transformation potential of former industrial sites in the city, such as the Lehigh Viaduct. What was once an off-limit and infrequently used rail corridor bisecting several low-income and diverse neighborhoods, is now being transformed into a valuable new public amenity, with green recreation spaces that can benefit neighborhoods and thousands of nearby residents.
The Detroit Opportunity Site initiative also created a coalition of cross-sector Detroit actors dedicated to exploring the full reuse potential of vacant industrial sites and properties. Those local participants identified several sites in Detroit as particularly relevant to test the lessons learned and precedents from the initiative. One of these sites was DTE Energy’s Conners Creek Power Plant, where many of its industrial buildings are structurally sound and primed for adaptive reuse, offering 400,000 square feet of redevelopable space. Moreover, because of its location along the river, the site also has potential to be the focus point of an ecological restoration.
How to do that? Where to start?
As city planners, policymakers, and developers seek to explore strategies for the adaptive reuse of their industrial legacy, the task can oftentimes seem daunting; notably when the project timeline is on average 15–20 years, from conception to project build-out, as might well be the case for Conners Creek Power Plant.
The projects’ complexity, the collaboration needed to bring them into fruition, and the cost of redevelopment for such emblematic redevelopments can be beyond the reach of cities and stakeholders with limited financial resources. Meanwhile, it can make it difficult to respond to short-term social, environmental, and economic challenges. The City of Detroit’s Planning Department is spearheading a unique approach called “tactical preservation” to kick-start reuse in vacant properties.
Tactical preservation can be defined as the strategic reuse of specific areas of a building and sealing up/securing the unused portion of a building for an interim period. The strategy is meant to immediately activate key portions of a building while the long-term vision and feasibility of the reuse project is determined or the market becomes more suited to development. The strategy is also meant to inspire long-term change and feature key characteristics such as a deliberate, phased approach to instigating change; an offering of local ideas for local planning challenges; and low-risk and realistic expectations.
If managed properly, tactical preservation interventions can serve as a catalyst to future development around the site, including potential social, economic, and environmental opportunities, as well as a means to beautifying the area.
How might we start activating portions of the Conners Creek Power Plant to bring the buildings and land to new productive and sustainable uses, strengthen attraction to the site, and spur further development? We’ll find out at BUILD Lab.
 For further information, please see: Detroit Opportunity Sites Final Report: The Opportunities of Redeveloping Large-Scale Industrial Vacant Sites & Properties in Detroit
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.