Officials with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are considering options to avoid demolition of a century-old boathouse on the shore of the Detroit River.
The Belle Isle Park Advisory Committee met Thursday to discuss capital investments at the state-run park, and assured historic preservationists and the country’s oldest rowing club that demolition of the boathouse is a last resort. Committee Chair Michele Hodges said there are practical realities to consider – millions of dollars in repairs are needed to make the decaying building safe – but demolition “would be a tough pill to swallow.”
“Demolition is not being discussed at this time,” Hodges said. “The DNR intends to further that decision-making process through a robust public engagement process. I just want to make it clear that no decisions have been made and there are a number of options that could ultimately take hold, but certainly not without doing that in consultation and partnership with the community.”
- Detroit students indulge their curiosity about nature in place-based lesson at Belle Isle
- Detroit’s Friday swim club on Belle Isle quickly growing
- Is Belle Isle doing enough to attract young Detroiters?
Deb Sumner, a longtime Detroit resident, was among several people who called in to Thursday’s virtual meeting to advocate for restoring the boathouse. Sumner said the DNR has responsibility to protect and improve Belle Isle’s historic structures. Rebecca Savage, an architectural historian with the city’s Historic Designation Advisory Board, said they are closely following the conversation.
David Carleton, a business owner who oversaw renovation of the downtown Grand Army of the Republic Building, said demolition of the boathouse would be “a terrible injustice.” Carleton said the boathouse is an important piece of the heritage of Belle Isle, and he’s hopeful that the DNR can find grant funding to restore the building.
“To comically paraphrase, hell hath no fury like Detroit historic preservationists,” he said.
The distinct Mediterranean-style boathouse was built in 1902 on the site of two other clubhouses that were destroyed by fires. It’s long served as a facility for the Detroit Boat Club Crew and is currently leased by Friends of Detroit Rowing.
The boathouse has fallen into disrepair in recent years and is unsafe to enter. Structural assessments found parts of the building are compromised; the roof caved in last year, water infiltration has caused damage to the interior and hazardous materials like asbestos and lead were identified.
Ron Olson, parks and recreation chief for the DNR, said public meetings will be scheduled with architects who can explain the extent of boathouse repairs. State officials are meanwhile working with Friends of Detroit Rowing to establish a temporary storage facility near the boathouse.
A 2019 architectural study by The Smith Group placed the total cost of rehabilitating the building at $43 million, though DNR officials said material cost increases likely inflated the figure to $53 million. Others suggested it could cost significantly less to stabilize the site and reopen parts of the facility to the public.
Stephen Malbouef, a Friends of Detroit Rowing member and architectural historian, said the boathouse was well-used until the roof collapsed last year. Malbouef said studies performed in 2022 found it would cost $4 million to make the site safe for use and $16 million to restore the exterior. Malbouef said the site has also been used by residents and youth sailing programs.
“These numbers are more accurate to what should be done,” Malbouef said. “This boathouse has so much potential to serve as a public gateway to the Detroit River for non-powered boating activities. It’s the most well-protected location on the entire Detroit River for activities like kayaking, paddleboarding and sailing.”
Olson said the $16 million figure cited by Malbouef is “unfounded” and hasn’t appeared in any studies he’s seen. The DNR received a 2006 study conducted by the city of Detroit that pegged the price tag at $28 million, but Olson said material cost increases and further degradation of the building have made that figure outdated.
Dan Austin, a Detroit historian and former communications official with Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration, also said the $54 million price tag is unrealistic.
“No one is expecting the state to invest that kind of taxpayer dollars into one single building, especially given all of the other needs on the island (and) across the state,” Austin said. “There are plenty of cheaper options available to make this building safe and usable for future generations.
“There are tons of dedicated volunteers and Detroiters like myself who have already fought to save this building who are eager to help raise funds for this building and put in the volunteer hours.”
The DNR first planned to allocate $5 million in federal pandemic relief to boathouse repairs, which would have come from an anticipated share of $43 million in federal funds sent from the state. It would have paid to replace exterior walls, portions of the roof and clay roof tiles, remove unstable portions of the building and repair the outside deck and stairs.
But only $23 million in funding came from the state to invest in other capital projects on Belle Isle. Olson said this changed the DNR’s plans, funding was prioritized for the aquarium and conservatory while plans to build a spray park and repair the boathouse were put on hold.
“We all have to understand that there’s only so many dollars to go around,” said advisory committee member Michael Curis. “With greater than 5 million visitors a year, we need to put those dollars where (it would) most effectively support the visitors that come every year.”
The state invested roughly $110 million into Belle Isle Park upgrades since taking control of the park as a condition of Detroit’s bankruptcy in 2014.
Repairs are ongoing to popular amenities like the conservatory, aquarium, Scott Memorial Fountain, casino, Flynn Pavilion and athletic shelters.
“Sometimes people think that perhaps we’re not sensitive to historic buildings, and that’s far from the truth,” Olson said.