Brodhead Armory. Credit: Andrew Jameson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Earlier this month, the city of Detroit approved the sale of the historic Brodhead Armory, a key step to bringing a prominent abandoned building back to productive use. But some are wondering if they gave away too much in the process.
On June 1, Detroit City Council signed off on selling the city-owned R. Thornton Brodhead Naval Armory to The Parade Co., which organizes Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The local nonprofit is looking to spend $40 million to convert the building on Jefferson Avenue along the Detroit River into its new headquarters. The planned rehab calls for replacing the southern half with a 130,000-square-foot addition and plaza that would connect the property to the Riverwalk.
Overall, it seems like a win for the city.
But residents, preservationists and veterans have been raising concerns for months about the deal and the $300,000 sale price.
The Brodhead is a 107,000-square-foot historic building covered in priceless murals on a prime patch of real estate near the Detroit River. Moreover, the city went ahead with the sale without conducting an appraisal of the site’s value — an issue that was raised during public discussions about the sale by Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López, who also voted against it.
Built in 1930, the Art Deco building was used as an event center and training facility for the U.S. Navy. According to Historic Detroit, it also has one the largest collections of murals in Michigan designed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a work-relief program during the New Deal era that also commissioned artworks. Since its closure in 2004, the Brodhead Armory has been in a steady state of decline, worsened by scrappers and little upkeep from the city.
The city hasn’t solicited proposals for redeveloping the property since 2015. A city spokeswoman said those proposals yielded no viable projects. In 2018, The Parade Co. inquired about the property and had been in negotiations with the city until this month’s sale.
The nonprofit has said the restoration will take significant investment and justifies a low price. The current plan calls for the demolition of the section of the building containing the WPA murals. Tony Michaels, president and CEO of The Parade Co., has said the nonprofit will make every effort to salvage them, but some preservationists are skeptical that they could be saved during a demo.
Another group composed of naval veterans, the Brodhead Association, submitted an alternative proposal, but it made little headway with City Council. Their plan called for redeveloping the entire building and saving the WPA murals.
“You couldn’t touch a piece of real estate like that for $300,000 in any other city in America,” Jim Semerad, a retired naval officer and president of the Brodhead Association, told Detour Detroit.
Semerad said his group was prepared to offer $1 million for the building and called the lack of an appraisal “egregious.”
Castañeda-López believes that selling public property without an appraisal or a full understanding of its future benefit to the city is a “dangerous” precedent to set. “The city is selling off public land, one of its greatest assets, without truly knowing its value,” she wrote to Detour.
Eventually, The Parade Co. will need approval from the Historic District Commission to redevelop the building.
Tracey Pearson, a spokeswoman for the city’s Jobs & Economic Team didn’t say why the city skipped an appraisal. She did defend the purchase price, saying that the building presents many challenges to a viable redevelopment, including its unique configuration, historic designation and overall deterioration. Three previous requests for proposals, most recently in 2015, yielded no viable projects, she said.
“Given the economic issues … as well as the non-profit and civic nature of The Parade Company project, and the public benefit in seeing the redevelopment of an historic asset that has been vacant and deteriorating for nearly 20 years, the City determined that $300,000 was the appropriate purchase price,” Pearson said.
A review of the project submitted to City Council by the City Planning Commission noted that the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) met with members of the Brodhead Association and determined, “the financial details were not sufficient to change the Administration and DEGC’s position” to sell the building to The Parade Co.
Howard Goldman is a senior attorney at the law firm Plunkett Cooney’s Bloomfield Hills office who specializes in real estate. He said municipalities frequently undervalue properties in order to increase the likelihood of a successful development, especially when the buyer is a nonprofit.
“In municipal deals, the city’s agenda may not be to get the highest value,” Goldman said. “The highest and best use [financially] for this property probably would have been for it to be torn down completely and a new development put there.”
He added that an appraisal “wouldn’t have helped anybody” since The Parade Co.’s plans can’t absorb a large purchase price. The organization is looking to raise funds over the next year and hopes to start construction sometime in the next two and a half years.
Semerad said the Brodhead Association isn’t giving up. His group will continue to oppose The Parade Co. plan while advocating for the building’s preservation and waiting for their opportunity, should one arise.
“If The Parade Company’s plans fail, the city of Detroit will be looking for an alternative,” he said. “We’ll be here.”
This story includes reporting from Detroit Documenter Linh Truong. Detroit Documenters is a partnership between Detour, Outlier Media, WDET, City Bureau, CitizenDetroit and the Detroit Free Press that pays residents to attend public meetings and help citizens and news outlets learn more about their city government. Upcoming trainings can be found here; the next one will be held July 20.