Historic buildings at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds will be incorporated into a new transit center

A Fair Deal?

Historic buildings at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds will be incorporated into a new transit center

Completed in 1922, the Riding Coliseum is one of three NRHP-listed buildings at the Michigan State Fairgrounds. (Andrew Jameson/Wikimedia Commons)

Two historic structures at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit at risk of demolition, the Hertel Coliseum (1922) and the Dairy Cattle Building (1924), will instead play a prominent role in a planned $18.6 million public transit center being built to replace a haphazard cluster of bus stops on Woodward Avenue near 8 Mile.

In a 5–2 vote, the Detroit City Council approved plans to retain and renovate the Dairy Cattle Building and preserve the portico of the Coliseum last Tuesday, November 23. The came following the conclusion of a three-month feasibility study that determined both white stuccoed structures can be saved and reused—or at least a part of the Coliseum—as part of the forthcoming transit center. The initial $7 million redevelopment plan originally proposed razing the buildings in their entirety, which sparked heated pushback from preservationists.

Designed by Lynn W. Fry, both classical-style buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 along with the adjacent Agricultural Building. As it stands now, the 52,000-square-foot Dairy Cattle Building will be transformed into a partially enclosed bus terminal compete with restrooms, a ticketing center, heated waiting areas, a lounge for drivers, and other amenities potentially including food vendors. The larger Coliseum, which was initially built as an equestrian center and was later used as an ice hockey arena, will be largely brought down although its iconic facade will be restored and left standing as an “entry point” to a planned swath of public green space adjacent to the transit center, as first reported by the Detroit Free Press.

In addition to the dairy barn-turned terminal for Detroit Department of Transportation-operated buses and the regional SMART bus service and park, the transit center will also include parking and a MoGo bike share location.

a historic dairy building at a fairgrounds
Dairy Cattle Building at the old Michigan State Fairgrounds. (Andrew Jameson/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

“We’re trying to retain that as an anchor to the what we call right now ‘Coliseum Park,’” explained Hakim Berry, chief operating officer for the City of Detroit, of the Coliseum facade at a press conference held earlier this month per the Free Press. “It could be called something else in the future. But it creates that outdoor space on this kind of desert place where nothing else is happening.”

The fact that only the portico of the Coliseum will be left standing was a major sticking point with some residents and council members-elect who called into voice their apprehensions and approval during a public comment session. While the current plan was favored by many over the considerably less expensive raze-everything scheme, others would have preferred to have seen more of the building be spared beyond the facade.

Per the Free Press, council members were divided on the amended resolution to fund the transit center although only two members voted against it, citing environmental concerns regarding the larger Amazon-anchored redevelopment of the old fairgrounds and qualms that the adaptive reuse of the Coliseum was not explored fully enough. As reported by the Detroit News earlier this month, the Agricultural Building, which was completed in 1926, is not part of the transit center plan and is currently being leased to 24-hour athletic facility Joe Dumanr’s Fieldhouse. Other historic elements of the fairgrounds, including its bandshell, have since been relocated.

The new transit center is being created as part of a deal to bring a $400 million Amazon distribution facility to the once-forsaken Michigan State Fairgrounds, which was active from 1905 through 2009 when then-governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed legislation that would have funded the annual event. (The fair itself dates back to 1849 and is one of the oldest in the United States.) The City of Detroit approved the sale of the 138 acres of the fairground site to two development groups, Hillwood Investment Properties and Sterling Group, in October 2020, for $16 million with the Amazon distribution hub taking up roughly half of the redevelopment zone. In 2019, the state sold 142 acres of the fairgrounds to the city for $7 million while a small remaining sliver of the property went to a development firm owned by Magic Johnson.

Construction work on the 3.8 million-square-foot Amazon complex is currently underway with a planned opening date next year. It is one of several major Amazon facilities that are now operational or planned for the Detroit metro area and elsewhere in Michigan including a robotics-focused facility that opened this September in Pontiac, Once up and running, the Amazon facility at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds is expected to create 1,200 jobs according to the company. As for the new transit center, it is expected to be operational next winter.