Dear Detroit City Council, Please vote to save history at the Michigan State Fair and build Detroiters the transit center they deserve.

David Gifford
7 min readNov 23, 2021

--

On Tuesday November 23, Detroit City Council has two choices. They can vote to approve turning a nearly 100 year old Dairy Cattle Building into a new transit center or vote no which would mean all historic buildings get demolished and a smaller transit center would be build in their place. Preservationists want the historic riding and concert Coliseum preserved as well but the current plan would only preserve the entrance and turning it into a park. The clock seems to have run out on further negotiations.

(Left) Smaller transit center with all historic buildings demolished. (Right) Retrofit historic Dairy Cattle Building into transit center. Photos by DDOT

How did we get here?

The current State Fair Transit center was a streetcar turnaround and actual station for decades.

(Left) photo source: “Dave’s Electric Railroads — DSR” — Joe Testagrose collection photo (Right) photo source: WSU Digital Library 1949 Aerial Photo Collection

The Michigan State Fair was held at Woodward & State Fair between 1905 and ended in 2009 when Governor Granholm vetoed funding. During those years Woodward streetcars turned around at the fairgrounds to make their journey back downtown and carry thousands of riders during the fair and other events. During the 1950s, there were as many as 68 streetcars in service on Woodward alone which meant that a streetcar would arrive every 1–2 minutes along the whole route. Compared to today, the QLINE runs ever 15 minutes using 3–4 streetcars along a 3.3 mile route. In 1956, the remaining streetcar system was replaced by buses and the streetcar turnaround became a bus transfer area. A regional transit system was never developed in Detroit but the suburbs had their own bus routes. The Woodward streetcar turnaround became the transfer spot between city and suburban buses.

(Left) State Fair Transit Center 1997 (Right) 2021

The State Transfer Area is essentially a collection of bus shelters with a restroom for drivers and riders. Transfers aren’t always easy here though. SMART suburban buses and DDOT city buses meet up here but not all buses pull into the loop. Some SMART buses only pick up & drop off along Woodward like the FAST Woodward bus, a rapid regional bus that runs 7-days a week all day only stopping every 1–2 miles. I’ve watched riders depart one bus and run across 10 lanes of Woodward to make the transfer. Missing the bus would mean a 15–20 minute wait for the next FAST bus with no shelter from the elements.

Enter Amazon

Since the State Fair was closed in 2009, several proposals from big names like Magic Johnson had been floated to redevelop the fairgrounds. Some ideas were pretty good like turning it into a dense urban area with housing and retail. After the city of Detroit purchased the land from the state, I don’t think many of us predicted that it would get completely demolished and turned into an Amazon distribution center. Well, not totally demolished. At least the bandshell was saved.

Suddenly there was talk of a new transit center but it was possible that it wouldn’t remain on Woodward. This didn’t seem right because moving the transit center off Woodward could make transferring even worse especially if the FAST bus didn’t reach it or the RTA finally gets funding and builds a dedicated lane Bus Rapid Transit System. Why would anyone think to move it? Sure, moving it closer to Meijer makes sense. Its a long walk from the State Fair Transit Center to Meijer and back. It appeared that Amazon needed the location for a truck route because according to the agreement with the city of Detroit, no trucks are allowed on State Fair Street. Because the property surrounding the current transit center is privately owned, Amazon would need to turn this transit center into a driveway.

Image from City of Detroit

There was only one problem with the proposal. The transit center appeared to sit right on top of two historic buildings and only $7M had been committed to the project. Demolition and site prep would eat up millions of dollars leaving little for a new bus station. For comparison, the Rosa Parks Transit Center cost $22.5M to build over 10 years ago.

After much community involvement, the City of Detroit came back with a new plan. After weighing their options, they decided it would be best to knock down the Coliseum above but reuse the less distinctive Dairy Cattle Building. This was to please preservationists and provide an even larger building than originally proposed. The new proposal was put on the table but city council still had concerns ranging from diesel fumes to the demolition of the Coliseum. Personally they should be more concerned with fumes from 24/7 freight service in & out of Amazon but we’re past that. Besides, future buses will be hybrid & electric. The vote was postponed a few times but has one more shot. We’ve been told there is no more negotiating. Either council approves the preservation plan or if they vote no, there will be no preservation. All buildings will be demolished and the original smaller building will be built.

Why does this matter?

There are several reasons the preservation plan matters. The first is that this is a large transfer hub. About 30,000 riders transfer here daily. They deserve more than a cluster of bus shelters. The new building would be a destination, a place out of the weather to wait for buses, use the restroom or even grab some food. It would also allow to better communicate route changes with riders. The current system of putting flyers in shelters is inadequate. Also, green construction. Its been said that the greenest building is the one already built. Not only is it incredibly wasteful to tear down and throw away buildings, it is also bad for the environment. Reuse is a much better alternative.

Why not save the coliseum too?

In December of 2020 I wrote an open letter to Amazon to spare the 1938 bandshell because of its historic significance. It turns out that the coliseum is also musically significant. Many of the same people who played at the bandshell also played at the coliseum. Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa were actually post game entertainment for Lawrence Tech basketball games. Popular artists played while the Detroit Auto Show and Autorama hot rod show were held there featuring Michigan local Jack Scott and the Big Bopper. Side note, I didn’t know that Mickey Shorr (1926–1988) was a DJ for WXYZ.

John F. Kennedy gave a speech there in 1960 and a host of other famous groups played there as well. To name a few: John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Little Willie John, Nancy Wilson, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, Velvet Underground, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Grateful Dead, Loretta Lynn, The Bob Seger System, Jethro Tull, Edgar Winter, Ministry, Helmet, Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine, Pantera, Type O Negative, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, White Zombie, Reverend Horton Heat, Melvins, Janes Addiction and Al Green. Okay, we can’t save every building because it is musically significant but must we knock it down right now? What’s the rush? It is a sturdy building and Detroit has knocked down so many historic buildings before they reached 100 years old, often without a plan to replace them and they end up as parking lots. Surely there are more creative ideas than a park to hang out at while breathing in fumes from passing buses and Amazon tractor trailers. The Coliseum could be used again for concerts, roller derby, coworking space, a warming shelter, drone racing, horse riding, trade shows. Basically anything is better than the landfill.

Preservation Matters

City council, please vote to save the Cattle Building and turn it into a transit center. If you can, try and save the coliseum too. While it may not be as significant as Tiger Stadium or Olympia, it is still an important historical building and one of the few ties we have left to our agricultural past.

Photo by Nat Zorach

Detroiters have been left in the cold far too long and deserve a modern transit center with all the amenities. You hold the power to give that to them. Please vote yes.

(Left) Smaller transit center with all historic buildings demolished. (Right) Retrofit historic Dairy Cattle Building into transit center. Photos by DDOT

--

--

David Gifford

Promotor of Detroit, public transit and transit equity. www.transitguidedetroit.com