An architecture competition to repurpose the tallest building in Flint, Michigan yielded original concepts and raised questions about downtown development for the restructuring industrial town.
The building is a 19-story former bank tower with eight parking levels, an open-air service deck, and ten floors of offices. It fell into disrepair in the 90s: the previous mayor, a car dealer, ordered it condemned and, he hoped, demolished. After years in court, Flint homeowners were soaked last year with an additional average tax of $130 for acquisition of the building and legal fees. Previously Genesee Towers was disliked and considered an eyesore. Afterward it was bitterly hated.
This past September, the 40-member-strong AIA-Flint launched a competition to save the structurally sound 1968 high-rise and program it for future development. The results, announced April 8th, generated lots of local interest. “It showed people in Flint that maybe there is something that can be done with this building rather than just tearing it down,” said John Gazall of Gazall, Lewis Architects, who organized the competition and displayed the boards in his glass-walled office next door.
The jury favored mixed-used interventions that respond to the new culture downtown. The top two prizes, including a beautifully rendered second-place entry by MIT architecture student Ekachai Pattamasattayasonthi and Flint native Brandon Edward Miller, went to projects that turn an adjacent surface parking lot into a public space.
“With the building being so large in relation to the city, we wanted to look at a larger section of the city and how that area is used by residents throughout the year,” said Mark Levine of Open Source Integrated (OSI) Architecture.
His winning Media Tower with partner Hiep Nguyen imagines a city square that extends to the tower with its lower levels as a surface for media projections and its rooftop and mechanical floor as an observation deck and terrace cafe.
The downtown presence of University of Michigan-Flint has buoyed a growing adaptive-reuse residential market, and a number of proposals combine loft-style condos with concepts to promote job growth. Levine and Ngugen stack six stories of student apartments atop 24-hour open-access labs for new media and instant prototyping. “The winning concept was a great combination of public space and an example of how the building could be reused to promote entrepreneurship and creative industries,” said Flint’s 37-year-old mayor Dayne Walling, who participated on the jury.
The most critical problem with the existing structure is the most easily solved: concrete panels insecurely clipped to the facade can be replaced with glass curtain walls. Levine and Nguyen supplement that with operable mesh shading to give the building a morphing surface.
Instead of mesh, New York-based Bade Stageberg Cox combines curtain walls with horizontal louvers in its third-place Micropolitan Tower concept. BSC models flexible live-work lofts after an early Soho artist community, with floor slabs cut out to create double-height workspaces adaptable to changing market conditions. The interstitial service level is re-purposed for an outdoor running track.
“It’s bigger than an architecture question—it’s how do you refill the city,” Tim Bade said. “We looked at how areas of New York have diversified and been reused over time and how we could instill that in other areas.”
The mayor still inclines toward demolition. “The challenge with the Genesee Towers building from a practical standpoint is that it’s too large for Flint’s current real estate market,” he said. “The competition showed that there are viable designs for the reuse of the building—the question is the financial dimension of an actual redevelopment project.”
The recent $30 million redevelopment of the landmark Durant Hotel into condos is almost completely sold. Likewise, the tower may yet inspire investors. “It’s the tallest building in the county, and when you’re up there you can see the entire county—it’s pretty cool,” said Freeman Greer of GAV & Associates, who evaluated its structural integrity in 2000 and ballparks the renovation at $40 million. “There used to be a restaurant on top called the University Club, and when I was up there it still had dishes on the tables.”