Conners Creek Power Plant: BUILD LAB — Tactical Preservation for Detroit’s Industrial Legacy

April 04, 2018
Irene García
3 min read
Photo Credit: f11photo / Shutterstock

Photo Credit: f11photo / Shutterstock

Tactical Preservation for Detroit’s Industrial Legacy

At this year’s BUILD Conference in Detroit, the Urban and Regional Policy Program (URP) of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) organized, in partnership with the City of Detroit and DTE Energy, a BUILD Lab: “Tactical Preservation for Detroit’s Industrial Legacy.”  The Lab leveraged an international network of 42 policymakers, architects, urban  planners,  and  practitioners  to  reimagine  one  particular  space  in  the  Conners  Creek  Power  Plant  and  brainstorm  on-site tactical preservation strategies that could spur further development throughout the main buildings and the site in general.

Conners  Creek  Power  Plant,  is  a  DTE  Energy-owned  property  in  Detroit’s  Lower  East  Side  near  the  historic  Jefferson  Chalmers  neighborhood.  The  75-acre  site  used  to  be  home  to  a  coal-fired  power  plant  with  nine  units  that  fueled  development in the city. When construction of the low-pressure side known as the “Seven Sisters” was completed in 1915, it doubled the generating capacity of the Detroit Edison company. The plant was expanded in 1951 with the construction of the high-pressure side known as the “Two Brothers,” but due to increasing energy needs farther from the city and the construction of new plants at the time, production ended in 1988.

The Seven Sisters were demolished in 1996 and the Two Brothers were converted to gas prior to decommissioning in 2008. The Two Brothers boiler house remains standing today and offers 400,000 square feet of redevelop-able space on about 45 acres of riverfront property.

As city planners, policymakers, and developers explore strategies to direct iconic places to new productive and sustainable uses, the task can often seem daunting. Project timelines can span an average of 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, and  the  costs  involved  for  such  endeavors  can  be  beyond  the  reach  of  municipalities  and  private  stakeholders,  making  short-term social, environmental, and economic responses more challenging. 

For  this  reason,  tactical  preservation  was  spearheaded  as  a  means  to  strengthen  attraction  to  the  site,  and  demonstrate  how  small-scale,  incremental,  targeted  adaptive  reuse  can  spur  further  development.  The  city  of  Detroit  is  a  place  of  iconic buildings and Conners Creek Power Plant certainly contributes to Detroit’s undisputed character, with multiple tangible assets and a cultural narrative rooted in the neighborhood.

Conners Creek Power Plant is in Detroit’s Lower East Side, near the historic Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. “This area is Detroit’s next great place; a welcoming community for all Detroiters to live, work, and play. Building on its prominent location and rich cultural heritage, this area is ready and positioned to become a free and open waterfront for all,” said Kimberly Driggins of Detroit’s Department of Planning and Development.

How can this resource be preserved and activated for new purposes? Tactical preservation offers some possibilities to move forward.

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