A Symbol of Progress

Detroit’s striking new transit center takes on even greater significance as the city suffers its most serious economic blow.

When Tushar Advani came to Detroit, the city’s Department of Transportation charged him with an unusual task: design a transit hub that makes a statement. “I’ve never had a client come to me and say, ‘I want an iconic bus station,’” says Advani, a Boston-based architect with the international planning and design firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. Clients are usually “all about function. They don’t want something that’s too exciting.” In Detroit, however, exciting was exactly what the city ordered. The result is the Rosa Parks Transit Center, an indoor/outdoor facility marked by seven graceful white canopies that rise above the outdoor waiting area like the sails of a tall ship.

The city had been using a temporary site at the edge of a downtown pocket park since late 2001, when the bus terminal at Cadillac Square was demolished to make way for the construction of Campus Martius Park. The relocation presented a chance to create a multimodal hub with access to 21 city bus lines and additional connections to the People Mover (a three-mile-long elevated rail line); several suburban bus lines; the tunnel bus to Windsor, Ontario; a shuttle bus to Chicago; and taxis. At the same time, the new construction provided another opportunity. “We needed something bigger and better, and we wanted a signature piece. In the central business district, there just isn’t one,” says Ruby Jordan, a project manager with the DDOT. “It would be more than a place to get on a bus. It would be a destination.”

The design, completed in July, lends a light and spacious feel to an area of downtown better known for dense, foreboding architecture. Though Detroit has some architectural jewels—the glorious Art Deco Guardian and Penobscot buildings, for example—the Rosa Parks Transit Center is located amid a collection of late-20th-century institutional structures, including AT&T’s local offices, a federal building, and an IRS computing center. The transit center’s canopies peek out among them, offering visual relief at every angle.

The city contributed land to the project, but it was funded primarily through a grant from the Federal Transit Administration, with additional financing provided by the Michigan Department of Transportation. Advani, who has worked on numerous transit projects, says the funding arrangement in Detroit is not atypical, but the ability to create an avant-garde facility on the federal government’s dime may be, given all the requirements that must be met for cost-effectiveness. “It was probably unique that we could build something that was engaging and inspiring, and still was built with FTA money,” he says.

His team considered several options for the outdoor waiting area before settling on an affordable tensile-fabric cover. “The fabric structure gave us the ability to have a more vertical design, to have less maintenance, and it gave us a structure that was bright during the day,” Advani says. Heavy and expensive metal barrel-vault construction would have required 24-hour lighting. A glass structure would not have stretched high enough to stand out from the surrounding architecture and would have required expensive upkeep. Parsons Brinckerhoff came up with the concept for the canopies and then turned over the design to FTL Design Engineering Studio, in New York, experts that had previously retrofitted a similar, though less dramatic, structure in Detroit’s Chene Park. “There are buildings around that are kind of backdrop buildings,” says Nic Goldsmith, an architect and senior principal at FTL who led the project. “So something that’s sculptural and visually stirring plays against what’s there.”

The artistry and economy extend to the passenger terminal as well. The exterior of the three-story, 25,000-square-foot, triangular building is primarily high-efficiency glass, which allows sunlight to illuminate the area all day. In addition to transit necessities—ticket and information booths, restrooms, and a security station—the climate-controlled building will house shops and restaurants.

“I wanted the main space to feel like you were outside in a public square, with lots of natural light and a lot of openness,” Advani says. The architect kept surfaces raw and unfinished, an aesthetic he prefers and that helped him stay within a tight $22.5 million budget. “We did a lot of things that, hopefully, you don’t see as cost-efficiencies, but they genuinely are,” he says. “The surface is burnished block. It’s cost-effective in two ways. One is that you don’t have to cover it up with gypsum board and paint, but it’s also durable and requires little or no maintenance.” The floors are a color-impregnated concrete. “As the concrete wears, you will see no difference in the color because it’s through the body. It’s not a stain,” Advani says. “And it’s significantly cheaper than terrazzo.”

When the transit center really glows is at night. Then, the canopies take on a Japanese-lantern effect that completely alters the feel of a place once dark and dead after sundown. “If you can create spaces in an urban environment where the light is softer and warmer, I think it’s more attractive,” Goldsmith says. “This softens a very hard area.” At ten o’clock one summer evening, the outdoor waiting area had the convivial vibe of a public park, with transit riders joking, reading, or patiently relaxing on benches. “This is a big move for Detroit,” said Bobbie Grier, a local resident who had come to the center for the first time the day before. “I was just blown away.”

Perhaps ironically, the need for a secure, pleasant transit hub—or inspiring design of any kind—is especially acute in Detroit right now. The DDOT recently announced service cuts, making the notoriously lengthy waits for its buses even longer—up to 45 minutes or even an hour on several lines. The cutbacks are, of course, part of a much larger problem. The city is facing a $300 million budget deficit, and its unemployment rate is triple the national average. As tends to happen in Detroit, these blows come just as major developments are bringing renewed vitality to the city, among them the expansive RiverWalk and several new and renovated buildings, both downtown and in the Cultural Center a few miles north.

Still, at least 12,000 people are expected to pass through the transit center each day, and the hub is part of a larger strategy to make the city’s small but woefully car-centered downtown more pedestrian friendly. Previous projects have included the development of Campus Martius Park in the middle of downtown’s main boulevard, $24 million in streetscape improvements, and the rehabilitation of the historic Book Cadillac hotel. Next on the agenda is the redevelopment of Capitol Park, the site of the temporary bus hub. That project is still moving forward. “Part of our strategy has always been to figure out how to connect places within downtown and to help create walkable places and connect points of interest and points of activity,” says Olga Stella, vice president of business development for the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. “Where the transit center is positioned, it continues in that philosophy of trying to fill in spaces and create points of connection.”

How much of Stella’s vision can be realized given the current challenges remains to be seen. But by boldly countering the defensive design mentality that permeated Detroit during the depressed, post-riot 1970s and ’80s, Advani and Goldsmith offer a visual homage to optimism in turbulent times. “We didn’t want to make this a fortress. It’s not meant to be a lock-down facility,” Advani says. “The idea here is that we show respect with our design for the rider, and we hope we get that respect back.” Adds Goldsmith: “I think this is a good example of how infrastructure doesn’t have to be boring, same-old, yesterday’s architecture. We wanted something that made people say, ‘Wow, there’s something happening in Detroit.’”

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