Sunday, July 12, 2009

Interview: Saving Michigan Central Station

On June 30, crews of volunteers from Summer in the City began clearing debris from Michigan Central Depot in a summer-long effort to beautify the decaying train station. Photos from the clean-up were posted on Flickr, and news leaked out on different blogs, sparking questions and criticism on the Detroit Yes forums and elsewhere about the use of volunteers, the role of Manuel Moroun, and the project's ultimate aim. As someone who has advocated saving the station, I wanted to learn more. So this weekend, I emailed the organizer, John Mohyi, a Wayne State undergrad and budding Republican politician, to learn the details behind the project. Here are my questions and his responses:

1. What type of work are volunteers doing at Michigan Central Station? How much of the station is being worked on? To what final end? How often and for how long will volunteers work at the station, and what will they have accomplished when the project is complete?

Phase 1 of the volunteer effort has focused on debris removal. In only four days time a mixture of volunteers and employees from the Ambassador Bridge Company (ABC) have been able to clear the two main rooms, a significant proportion of the second floor, as well as many other key areas inside the station. As a result we have filled four dumpsters worth of debris and scrap metal.

I personally will be working on this project from beginning to end. Phase 1 is now nearing completion and we have already began exploring phase 2. Phase 2 consists of removing the broken glass and installing new windows and doors. ABC employees have already began sandblasting off graffiti on the exterior and will continue to do so as we progress. Phase 2 will rely on a more skilled group of volunteers. In addition to the well seasoned volunteers we already have, Home Depot corporate has expressed interest in the volunteer effort and with a little luck will jump on board.

I suspect the Michigan Central Station grassroots volunteer effort will be a never ending community project. Although at one point I hope to see the station completely restored I expect to always see volunteer artists and the youth in general leaving their mark on the MCS for years to come.

2. What is the genesis of the project? In postings online, you have mentioned Senator Brown and a meeting you had with Manuel Moroun. What was Senator Brown's role? What was yours and how are you two affiliated?

It all started when the Detroit City Council voted for an "expedited demolition" of the Michigan Central Station on April 7, 2009. Shortly after I was invited to a Facebook group to save the station. Until that moment I was not aware the building existed. As I scanned the breathtaking photos of the MCS I was compelled to save something beautiful.

I had recognized the situation before. You could sense the passion and the determination to save the station, but the efforts were devoid of leadership. I stepped in and centralized the effort. I started with an electronic petition to demonstrate the massive community support to the station owners, Detroit City Council, and the community itself. Next I created as a hub for the grassroots effort. Once I established a solid base of support a stroke of luck put me in the right place at the right time. After a drawn out conversation regarding the MCS, Senator Brown invited me along on a tour of the station with fellow senators, ABC President Dan Stamper, and other high profile individuals. This gave me the opportunity to get the station owners on board with the grassroots effort. Essentially Senator Brown provided the missing piece to the puzzle and has continued to provide his support in any way possible.

3. How is the effort being coordinated and paid for? Why use volunteers?

Summer in the City is the core organization for the volunteer effort thus far. They provided both experience and an established infrastructure that we were able to tap into. The station owner has paid for everything. In addition to all the supplies, they have provided a BBQ for the volunteers, paid for us to go to City Fest, and given us everything we have requested.

To answer your question "why use volunteers?", as a volunteer myself I wanted to be apart of something great. When I look back and see what the Michigan Central Station has become I will be able to say with pride that I helped make that happen. Mr. Moroun may own the station, but at the end of the day it belongs to each each and everyone of us and I feel a responsibility to do my part. As we have progressed I have watched with my own eyes what the people of Michigan are capable of and I want to show that to the world.

4. What is Manuel Moroun's and the Detroit International Bridge Company's specific role in the project? How have they contributed, monetarily or otherwise? 

They pay for everything and do everything we ask of them. The station owner's wife also helped us plant 1,000 flowers in front of the station.

5. Is there anything else people should know about the effort?

Visit to sign up to become a volunteer.

(Photos provided by John Mohyi and taken by Bruce Griffin.)


Matt said...

Wow -- really interesting effort. Thanks for doing this interview.

I read Brown's statement about the Central Depot. His group proposes a couple of uses:
• Michigan State Police forensic laboratory
• Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection office
• Regional homeland security headquarters
• Trade processing center and border inspections facility
• Intermodal transportation hub

Detroit just finished a transportation hub, so that's probably out. The rest of the options are all national security related -- operations that would keep the public out of the historic space. Yuck! Why not renovate the Depot for use as a cultural center, or an event venue, or a business/nonprofit incubator, or all of the above? If it's structurally sound, it's certainly big enough to hold a wide range of groups.

I wonder how much of the work can be done incrementally, as small piles of funding become available.


Anonymous said...

"Detroit just finished a transportation hub, so that's probably out. "

Not true. Detroit just finished a big bus depot downtown. That doesn't rule out the possibility of creating a rail station, high-speed rail hub, or light-rail transfer station on the proposed Michigan Ave. line.

motz said...

If I remember correctly, Obama has set aside money to fund a high speed rail line and Detroit may be one of the stops between the east coast and Chicago. This would be a fantastic use, if what I remember is true.

What shocks me, and leaves me questioning all of this, is that the ABC is helping greatly in all the efforts. After their years upon years of neglect for this beautiful building and their next-to-nil attempts to do anything with it, why change now? Are they trying to get good publicity so that the public and local officials will change their view on the second span of bridge? This entire situation sounds fishy to me, especially since good ol' Matty is involved.

Regardless, this is a fantastic start and I am happy to see some (more like any) progress being made on one of Detroit's biggest beacons of blight.

Matt said...

@anonymous -- you're right, I just assumed that the new station would be the obvious terminal for Michigan Ave. rail, but that hasn't been mentioned in any of the recent articles. It's a logical choice, though, especially with some sort of connector to Woodward.

Is there any news on a Michigan Ave. line? The online info I could find is for a bus rapid transit system. I thought most of the recent efforts have focused on Woodward, with some possibility of eventual expansion.

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Cooper said...

Motz: The involvement of the bridge company makes this difficult to champion and is what motivated me to interview the project leader. Is this an attempt to garner positive publicity? Of course. Shamelessly. But if it improves the station, or leads to its redevelopment, I can't really complain. It doesn't undo decades of poor community relations, nor does it invalidate arguments against the twinning of the Ambassador bridge.

But if this is just a cunning move on Moroun's part, I think the best response from the public is to be cleverer yet. Use this mirage of good will to fix up the station and secure the property -- and then keeping fighting just as hard over the bridge because none of the issues have changed.

Cooper said...

Matt: DTOGS formally considered five different routes when it was deciding where to begin light rail. It chose Woodward first, and I believe Michigan Ave. came in second. So if DTOGS goes through (and so far it has no funding source, so don't hold your breath), Michigan would initially get some form of rapid bus transit, with the possibility of light rail when the system is expanded. But we're easily talking a decade into the future.

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Cooper said...

Evidently not:

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