Lost potential: Remembering Tony Goldman, the developer who wanted to change Detroit

Posted on September 17, 2012

The Detroit redevelopment movement suffered a pretty big blow Thursday when the visionary developer Tony Goldman died in New York.

Because, with him, some big ideas for the city died as well.

To understand the potential that Goldman, 68, represented for Detroit, a look at the South Beach section of Miami or the SoHo neighborhood in New York is as far as you need to go.

Goldman made a name for himself as the guy who loved the unloved neighborhoods and cities of the United States.

And the fact that he was “smitten,” as he said it, with Detroit, makes his death all the worse. Check out this video we produced about him and his vision to see for yourself.

During the course of two months in 2011, I had the chance to spend time with Goldman. We’d done several interviews for a large story I wrote forCrain’s Detroit Business.

And through my involvement with the Real Estate Forum hosted by the University of Michigan and the Urban Land Institute, I recruited him to be the keynote speaker for their 2011 event. Along with that, I conducted a one-on-one interview with him as part of the November event.

In preparing for our presentation, Goldman and I had a series of long, incredibly interesting conversations.

As a developer, he was deeply in love with buildings and parts of Detroit that nobody cares about. Standing outside of Cobo Center with him, he stared longingly at the Book Tower.

“What’s the story with that one?” he asked me, as he fired question after question about pretty much every building we could see.

“That’s one of plenty of buildings that’s been pretty much left for dead,” I told him. “It’s mothballed and nobody knows what the heck to do with it.”

“What a tragedy,” he said. “An absolute tragedy.”

“Sounds like something you should do,” I chided him.

“Maybe you’re right.”

And of all things that really got him going, as a developer, was the Dequindre Cut.

He had a vision of making the linear park a centerpiece of a larger redevelopment of the corridor from Gratiot Avenue to the Riverfront in Detroit. He wanted public art and retailers along the one-mile trail. He wanted to build off of the existing residences nearby and create an entire corridor.

“Do you have any idea what kind of potential you have there?” he asked me.

His ideas — and his comments — were terse, aggressive, sometimes offensive and wildly colorful.

I provoked him, on purpose, during our ULI presentation, and asked him the question: “Who cares about old buildings? They’re, in many cases, run-down, the inefficient and they’re expensive to fix out. Why not just knock these things down and start over?”

He laughed at my attempt to provoke him (and I don’t really think we should knock those buildings down) but launched into a tirade on the problems that result from cities that don’t take care of their historic buildings, and the developers who knock them down.

“Knocking these buildings down is like pulling the last good teeth out of your mouth,” he growled. “People who want to do that should be taken outside and beaten with a cane.”

It was also during that event that he came the closest to committing to Detroit, publicly, that he had ever done. I had to ask him three times, but finally got this out of him.

“When you’re smitten, you’re a mark,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here and a lot that interests me.”

He also spent that day meeting with Dan Gilbert and other local developers around town.

I’m told by local developers that he was trying to line up some buy-in from local sources before he pulled the trigger on coming to Detroit.

His radical ideas for Detroit included the notion of literally giving all of the vacant homes to teachers, police officers and other civil servants.

“Do whatever you can to bring some life to these streets. Put someone in those houses, anyone. Turn on the damn lights, at least. Put a candle in the window, just light those things up.”

He called on Detroit to go full blast to what he called “a frontier spirit that once drew Americans to the West,” he said.

It’s one thing when someone pops off with a bunch of crazy ideas, it’s another when someone — who has actually pulled things like this off before — pops off with a bunch of crazy ideas.

In SoHo, Tony Goldman bought 18 properties from 1976 to 1984, opening jazz cafés and restaurants to anchor the area’s artistic base.

In South Beach, he again bought 18 properties from 1985 to 1994, creating two hotels and several acclaimed restaurants. Through the work, he was dubbed “Father of South Beach,” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation when it awarded him its highest accolade in 2010.

For Philadelphia, in the mid-1990s, he bought 25 distressed properties in the downtown City Center district.

Starting in 2004, he acquired 20 properties in the Wynwood district of Midtown Miami.

It was his work in Miami that may have had the biggest impact. The Miami Herald wrote a compelling obituary, which recounts his dramatic impact in the city.

In the story, the mayor of Miami Beach said that Goldman, “came here during the time when Miami Beach was really down and out, and he put his money into this community.

“He bought [Art Deco preservationist] Barbara Capitman’s vision, had the vision to invest here, made Ocean Drive what it is today. He believed there was money in preservation and he made it happen here.”

Of all the national developers to die, it’s Detroit’s misfortune that it was the guy who really wanted to do those things here.

Daniel Duggan, Crain’s Detroit