The exterior of the Vanity Ballroom in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood of Detroit.

The Vanity Ballroom is just one of an estimated 66,000 empty buildings across Detroit’s 139-square-mile (360 sq km) footprint. The 1929 dance hall with Aztec motifs and big band–era memories anchors a run-down commercial strip on Detroit’s far east side, just a half mile (0.8 km) from the border with the tony suburb Grosse Pointe Park.

Can echoes of the Vanity Ballroom’s past help save it, as well as scores of other vacant theaters, banks, schools, libraries, churches, apartment buildings, and storefronts that once were mainstays of Detroit neighborhoods? That was the issue facing a ULI Advisory Services panel that gathered in the Motor City in late July. National and international experts in real estate, historic preservation, land use, urban development, and finance gathered to brainstorm with city planners.

At a concluding session in the Jam Handy building—itself an example of a small historic Detroit building now being resuscitated—panelists discussed how Detroit planners can deploy tactical preservation. The structure was the headquarters for longtime industrial filmmaker Jam Handy Organization, which made commercial and industrial shorts for local automakers, as well as produced a 1948 animated version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Detroit Soup, a crowdfunding organization that supports local entrepreneurs with microgrants, hosts dinners and other events in the space.

The ULI panel’s assignment was to offer ideas for how to save what Maurice Cox, director of the Detroit Planning and Development Department, termed “an incredible inventory” of buildings that have defied adaptive use. The city is expanding its Strategic Neighborhood Fund by raising $130 million to make improvements in 10 targeted neighborhoods over the next several years.

“The culture of Detroit is embodied in those buildings,” said Cox. Detroit’s revitalized downtown has attracted international acclaim, Cox noted. However, “how do we preserve thousands of buildings [in neighborhoods] for another generation?” he asked.

Panelists Jean Carroon, Caroline Paff, Dionne Baux, and Robert Peck explore the Alger Theater along East Warren Avenue in Detroit.

“We’ve got to get started now because these buildings are literally falling down around us,” said panel chair Michael Stern, principal of MAS Places in Jackson, Wyoming.

The panel devised a scoring matrix to help city planners evaluate structures, advocated elimination of barriers to reusing sections of buildings, and set goals and timelines for swift action over the next 12 to 15 months.

Detroit city planners must adopt a “triage approach” in assessing neighborhood landmarks, said panelist Karmi Palafox, senior adviser for Palafox Associates in Makati City, Philippines. “Be effective and act now,” she said.

“This is an easy city to love if you’re a preservation architect,” said panelist Jean Carroon, who leads the preservation practice at Goody Clancy Architecture in Boston. “Start with what you already have—buildings that have national, state, and local significance. . . . Recognize that you won’t be able to save them all.”

The preliminary matrix asks planners to score a building’s heritage value, community value, proximity to a corridor, impact in that corridor, structural integrity, potential use, alignment of the floor plan with that use, ease of partial use, level of finishes, access to utilities, and financing.

Preservation projects need champions, Carroon noted. “You’re not going to save buildings if you don’t have someone who is going to come forward to fight for them,” she said. Short-term success is also necessary to fuel future success.

Bank buildings, many built in the 1920s during Detroit’s boom years and dotting commercial strips, might be a good place to start, panelists said . The main floor of these buildings could be restored first while the rest of the space is mothballed. Also, these buildings lack high-end finishes, which are expensive to restore.

Though the panel suggested that a cold eye be taken to a building’s condition, Carroon cited the Vanity Ballroom in saying it is also important to weigh intangibles such as what a structure might signify to a neighborhood’s identity. “Love” can overcome structural deficiencies and other weaknesses when a building is being assessed, Carroon said, because a dilapidated structure “can visually and spiritually be the heart of the community.”

The Neighborhood Framework Planning process being undertaken by Detroit’s Planning and Development Department.

The panel recommended that the city focus in the next year on identifying ten to 15 structures viable for renovation in about ten different neighborhoods across the city and aim to secure, reuse, or renovate spaces in each building in order to lay a foundation for future work.

Such neighborhood preservation projects also could provide an avenue for job training in the construction business for area residents, Palafox said.

“Tactical preservation is a way to educate and involve community,” said Palafox, and can lead to catalytic projects. She noted that Detroit Metropolitan Airport, which is 21 miles from the city’s western limits, is near the targeted communities such as the Warrendale and Mexicantown—much closer to the city airport than destinations in London and Tokyo.

Ernst Valery, managing member and president of developer SAA/EVI of Baltimore, stressed the importance of including in redevelopment projects developers or programs whose principals are women and people of color. “Economic inclusion will lead increased economic vitality that will benefit everyone,” said Valery. He also suggested that the city survey entrepreneurs to find ways to match them with vacant buildings needing revitalization. “This is about sharing the prosperity so the folks who have weathered through storms here” can get recognition and opportunity, Valery said.

Detroit needs to push programs that embed opportunity for residents, said Dionne Baux, director of urban programs for Main Street America in Chicago. “How are you building the capacity of residents” and “giving them the tools that they need to move it forward?” she asked. For example, small-scale developers may need help with the process for gaining permits for work, she noted.

Though panelists were taken by the beauty of the city and the variety in its architecture, some structures may be past the point of restoration without large investments, said Brian Coleman, chief executive officer for Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center in Brooklyn, New York.

“Look at what means the most” to the neighborhood, “what you love, and what the bankers say we can finance,” he said. A loan guarantee fund might be a way to entice bankers to finance some risky projects, for instance, by perhaps guaranteeing 25 or 50 cents on the dollars for small-scale projects involving renovation of part of a building rather than a top-to-bottom rehab, he said.

Coleman also said city planners should create a handbook for small developers and projects because some preservation work will be done on a micro-bid level.

The Detroit planning department must eliminate obstacles for temporary use of historic buildings, said Robert Peck, principal of Gensler in Washington, D.C. That might mean finding ways to deploy city fire marshals and building inspectors to devise innovative but safe ways to deal with code issues and “turn inspectors into champions of temporary use of historic buildings,” he said.

Adam Silverman, with the Cozen O’Connor law firm in Philadelphia, agreed, saying the city government needs to “be a facilitator, not a hindrance.” He said the city can help eliminate parking problems near restored buildings and work with utilities to provide service to a building for special events or a temporary use. The city can also help resolve asbestos contamination during the renovation of a small part of a building initially without disturbing the entire structure. Likewise, insurance liability issues for a building’s use may benefit from the city developing a policy for such uses.

Panelists tour the Artist Village in the Redford neighborhood.

Silverman also suggested that laws about condominium ownership and use could be applied to partitioning historic buildings for temporary use. “It’s a powerful tool,” he said.

Caroline Paff, principal of VI Development in Baltimore, laid out the panel’s action plan for Detroit city planners for the next 12 months. They should begin by identifying one building in each community and determining whether it can be quickly connected to local utilities. At three to six months, champions for the building should be identified, a draft plan for the renovation should be submitted to a task force, and legal issues cleared. At six to 12 months, grant possibilities for funding the renovation should identified. A “use it or lose it” provision is also needed to ensure that the developer does not wait for the market to strengthen before beginning the renovation work.

Stern announced that through the ULI Foundation, Carolyn and C. Preston Butcher have awarded $25,000 in seed money that can be used to stabilize building projects in Detroit. Cox said the city will seek to build additional contributions for a pool of $100,000.

Aamir Farooqi, chairman of Banyan Investments, who attended session, said he supports the role of private developers in helping preserve some structures. “I think more people need to fall in love with the developer,” said Farooqi. Banyan has bought and renovated 200 homes in five Detroit neighborhoods, he said. His company is behind the current redevelopment of the former St. Charles Borromeo school on Detroit’s near east side to serve as luxury apartments, and also has renovated a 1920s-era bank nearby for a new use.

Carroon said after the session that she is enchanted by Detroit. “I called my husband in Boston and said, ‘How do you feel about moving to Detroit?” she said. “People are moving here because they can make a difference. There’s the variety of architectural styles. It’s affordable. People are passionate. What more can you want? It’s beautiful.”