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Detroit — It’s been nearly 20 years since the iconic J. L. Hudson Co. department store imploded on Woodward, and it’s been a blank slate ever since.

Fast forward to 2017, and Bedrock is preparing to break ground Dec. 1 on a $900 million mixed-use development that at 800 feet will be the tallest building in the city.

This 1-million-square-foot unnamed project will be on the site of the former department store, affectionately known as Hudson’s.

Architecture and urban planning experts say it’s time for the site to be developed. Some believe the building could become a new iconic symbol for downtown Detroit because of its design and centrality. But some believe having such a large-scale building downtown will draw activity away from other areas, such as New Center.

“It’s long overdue that we have something on that site,” said Stephen Vogel, professor of architecture and former dean of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture.

When built, the tallest point of the building will be higher than the 734-foot tower proposed earlier this year. It will exceed General Motors Co.’s Renaissance Center, which stands at 727 feet.

“It’s a very tall building, which I think is appropriate for that site,” Vogel said. “Filling the site from edge to edge is appropriate.”

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Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson Associates and New York City-based SHoP Architects are designing the proposed project.

The development will feature 425,000 square feet of residential space, 240,000 square feet of office space, 120,000 square feet of event space and 100,000 square feet of retail space. There will also be 700-plus underground parking spaces.

There will be two buildings with a pedestrian walkway in between. A residential tower will house 330 units. The recently announced increase to the building’s height will provide better views over the nearby One Campus Martius building, say officials for Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock.

Visually, the buildings incorporate a design with a glassy, open appearance.

“We worked really hard both visually to connect what’s happening in the building to the street,” said Jamie Witherspoon, Bedrock’s director of architecture. “Large glass expansions allow one to see in. What’s happening in the building and vice versa.”

1950s-’60s heyday

In its heyday, Hudson’s was the premier retailer in downtown Detroit and anchored the Woodward corridor. At 25 stories, the flagship store was once the tallest department store in the world. Shoppers flocked to see the Christmas displays and have their children sit on Santa’s lap.

The store launched in 1891 when Joseph Lowthian Hudson opened a clothing store for men and boys in the old Detroit Opera House Building between Woodward and Monroe. In 1911, he built and opened a store on Farmer that would eventually undergo 12 expansions until it took over the entire block in 1946.

Hudson’s reached the height of its success in 1950s and 1960s and began to see a decline in business by the mid-1970s. The store closed in 1983. The building was imploded in 1998, leaving a vacant space in the heart of the city’s downtown. The site sits above an underground parking structure.

Vogel said he was opposed to the city tearing down the Hudson’s building and was part of a national firm’s effort to redevelop the building.

“City was not interested,” Vogel said. “The reason the city was not interested is because the vacant Hudson building was a symbol of the failure of the city. The city wanted it down. So they tore it down.”

Charlie Beckham, who oversees the city’s Department of Neighborhoods, was an appointee of former Mayor Dennis Archer when the Hudson’s building came down.

“At the time, it was a vacant building,” said Beckham.

“The decision was made we could probably market that site better without a building than with a building,” he said. “That was really what happened. It became a better marketable site with that building down. It was just a hulk standing there. It was almost like the train station.”

Beckham said he expects good things under Gilbert’s plan for the site.

“Dan Gilbert has got a pretty aggressive plan for that site,” said Beckham, who sits on the Downtown Development Authority board. “Dan Gilbert does pretty much everything he says he’s going to do. So I got no reason to believe he’s not going to do this.”

Gilbert’s firms have had development rights to the property since 2007. Early conceptual designs were released in 2015 and more detailed plans earlier this year. In September, Bedrock released new renderings that brought with the project a higher price tag, taller tower and a longer construction timeline beyond the anticipated 2020 opening.

Because of the department store’s history as a hub of shopping and social activity, it’s important to incorporate access for the public in the design, said Kimberly Dowdell, a Detroit-based architect, real estate developer and lecturer in architecture at the University of Michigan.

“The development needs to feel welcoming, not just to new Detroiters, but to longtime residents who have seen Detroit in best of days and worse of days,” Dowdell said. “If everyone feels it’s a welcoming and inviting place to be then I think it would be a successful project.”

Developers say one of the purposes for the project is to draw in the public with retail along Woodward, an open-air Farmer Street market during warmer months and spaces such as the pedestrian walk and the observation deck. One does not have to be a tenant or employee in the building to experience it, Witherspoon said.

“Everyone you talk to has some sort of connection to the Hudson’s site,” he said. “It lives in the collective memories of Detroiters. Everyone remembers an experience there, remembers when the building came down. I think that history and the role the building played in the history of the city is not lost on us.”

Carolyn Loh, associate professor of urban studies and planning at Wayne State University, said she believes the public space on the ground floor and the observation deck will be welcoming for everyone.

“So many downtowns are becoming sites of extreme luxury, and partly because of our economic woes and, partly, I like to think, because of our Midwestern ethos, we’ve avoided that so far in Detroit,” she said. “It’s definitely exciting to see new development anywhere in the city, but especially because of the centrality of the Hudson’s site I think it’s important that it be an inclusive space — there are ways to signal inclusiveness with the architecture, the signage, that kind of thing, that I hope they will take advantage of.”

Loh said that she would like to see this project, in particular, set aside space for affordable housing.

“This is a symbolically important building, and making it so, at least some middle- and lower-income people could participate is part of what I mean about an inclusive space,” she said.

Whitney Eichinger, spokeswoman for Bedrock, said the company is still determining the number of affordable units it will have in each of its developments, but there will be at least five units in the Hudson’s project.

There could be a downside to such a large project, said Rayman Mohamed, associate professor and interim chair of urban studies and planning for Wayne State University.

“I am concerned that this single, large building might suck the energy out of other neighborhoods,” he said. “We still have large underutilized buildings in the city, including the Albert Kahn building and the Fisher building.”

The Albert Kahn building was at 20 percent capacity when developers, the Platform, listed it for sale in September. The building was not marketed for tenancy in anticipation of a renovation, building officials said.

But developers with the Platform don’t seem to view the new development as a threat.

“As one of Detroit’s most iconic office buildings, we are confident that the Fisher Building will remain competitive with other Class-A buildings in the downtown market,” said Dan Austin, a spokesman for the Platform. “We also believe that new-construction, multi-tenant office space in our market will be a great sign of the continuing resurgence of Detroit.”

‘A missing tooth’

In September, Gilbert unveiled a $2.1 billion plan that packaged the Hudson’s site project with three other developments to be considered as one for a new state tax incentive.

The others are the $830 million overhaul of the Monroe Blocks between Greektown and Campus Martius; the $313 million renovation of the Book Building and Tower on Washington; and a $95 million addition to the One Campus Martius building. Gilbert has said that the projects will rely on $250 million — about 12 percent of the overall investment — from the new Michigan Thrive legislation that he heavily lobbied Lansing politicians to pass.

About 11 percent of the total project cost for the Hudson’s site will be covered by the Michigan Thrive initiative, Eichinger said.

The downtown is due for another high-rise building, said Carl Roehling, a principal at SmithGroupJJR and board member of the Michigan Architecture Foundation. He notes that with the exception of the 1920s, Detroit has had a pattern of seeing one high rise built every decade. The most recent was the 344-foot-tall Greektown Casino Hotel completed in 2009 at 555 E. Lafayette. Prior to that, the 619-foot-tall One Detroit Center, now known as the Ally Detroit Center, was completed in 1993 at 500 Woodward.

“The new one being proposed I think is phenomenal,” he said. “The site itself has been a missing tooth in an urban fabric.”

Being the tallest building in Detroit wasn’t the first goal of the project, Witherspoon said.

“There’s these buildings that signify the cities that they’re a part of,” Witherspoon said. “We wanted that building to have that, be an important icon whether it’s the tallest was part of that, but not the driving factor in that.”

‘An economic engine’

Dowdell said she believes the available space in the building will attract companies not already located downtown.

“Most notable, it will attract companies from other locations,” she said. “Other cities. Other states as well. It can be an economic engine.”

Bedrock is still making decisions regarding tenants, officials said.

By December, passersby of the Hudson’s site will see barricades go up and construction crews begin work to remove the existing underground parking garage.

Designers will continue to work on the finer details of the project, Witherspoon said, such as wall colors and door selections for an open market.

Roehling said he’ll be glad to see the steel beams removed from the site. In warm weather, he walks down Woodward two or three times a week. He said he misses the presence of the Hudson’s building when he takes his grandchildren to the Thanksgiving Day Parade along Woodward each year.

“It irritates me that there’s nothing there,” he said. “It’s thought of as the heart of the parade. It’s something that needs to be filled in for sure.”

Staff Writer Christine Ferretti contributed.

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