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Genesee Tower a Key to a Sustainable 21st Century City*

June 13, 2010

Shown here in late summer, 2007 (c) Shaun Smakal

To briefly summarize, the story of Genesee County’s tallest building is as unfortunate, disappointing and ugly as the building’s current state.  At present, the City of Flint is in the process of appealing a court decision over the appraised value of the building and regardless of the final verdict, will become the owner of the property.  

There is a broad array of rumors, opinion and confusion about the building floating around the general public but from what I’ve been able to determine, the building is neither structurally deficient nor in danger of failure.  Much of the controversy over its condition is based on the character and function of the building’s façade, its long-term vacancy and maintenance, aesthetic style, impending legal costs to the city and a lack of information and discussion about its future.  

Because there’s been no public discourse on the buildings true potential or a genuine exploration of any alternatives, the general public believes that the best way to handle Genesee Towers is to demolish it.  This position is reinforced by the City of Flint’s intent to pursue demolition, the rationale being that it’s the cheapest and easiest thing for the city to do.  

I wish to challenge that mind-set.  

 I have to ask:  What is to be gained by tearing down Genesee Towers?  A vacant, ugly building is torn down.  So what?  The building doesn’t have to be vacant or ugly.  Under city ownership, it represents a potential source of revenue, but not as a vacant lot.  

If the structure is in imminent threat of collapse and causing significant damage to adjacent buildings and loss of life, then tear it down.  

If the city has an exciting development opportunity to replace the building with a structure that is grander in scale, program, urban vibrancy and sustainability that can’t be placed anywhere else, then tear it down and build it anew.  

But if the answer is because it’s cheap and easy, then we need to reexamine our priorities.  Our Mayor has made a commitment to making Flint a “sustainable 21st century city.”  It’s time we start taking the risks and doing the work needed to make this a reality and transforming Genesee Towers into an innovative, sustainable, exciting and beautiful addition to the downtown is a great place to start.   

 If it will take a $20-30 million investment to turn Genesee Towers into a great building that the people and businesses of this city are proud of and helps attract new opportunities, I would say that’s a much more worthwhile investment than spending $8-10 million to turn it into another vacant lot that still detracts from the vitality of our downtown, no one is proud of and will likely never see comparable development for over 100 years, if ever.  Even if a $10-12 million dollar development were to be found and built on the demo site it would never match the impact of refurbishing, reprogramming and redeveloping the existing structure.

This doesn’t include the substantial energy, carbon and material costs that would be lost by demolishing an existing building.

We all know the city can’t afford to turn Genesee Towers into an amazing LEED Platinum building that shows our commitment to an innovative, brighter future for our city.

We can’t afford anything that highlights a marvelous new way to invest in and grow a proactive approach to sustainable urbanism that not only works for us, but establishes a model for others to follow. 

But we can’t let our fears and concerns about whom is going to do the work for us or how we’re going to pay for it hold our city, its leadership or citizenry back from investing in our future.  If we were determined and passionate about making it happen, about making this vision a reality, we wouldn’t have to worry about the cost. 

We can find a way to make it happen, but only if we work for it. 

Will it be easy or cheap?  No. 

But nothing worth doing ever is. 

Will someone come to our rescue at the 11th hour?  No.  And expecting someone else to fix it for us will get us nowhere. 

We’ve got a lot of work do and we need to get started. 

*Note:  This article was submitted to The Flint Journal’s Letter-to-the-Editor on May 21st, 2010 and was never printed.  An “Our Voice” op-ed by Flint Journal staff was posted online June 11th and published June 13th 2010, that is similar to my original letter, but advocates for the same old “we should let someone else do it” attitude that continues to fail this city.  Please note that some changes to spelling and format have been made to my letter to accomodate this blog post.

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