Christmas in Flint

They’re knocking down your tallest building, and you’re paying millions for the demolition. Merry fucking Christmas, Flint.

Genesee Towers was slapped up in 1968, the brainchild of former hotshot developer Henry Sender, a dapper man with slicked back hair and tailored suits. He put a parking garage on the bottom half of the building and office space on the upper half – hence the plural form, when the Towers are in fact a single, 250 feet tower. Or 326 feet if you count the spire, a thoroughly utilitarian antenna.

And it’s all going down, suckers.

The design was trendy, modeled after the famous honeycomb-like structures in Chicago’s Marina City. There was an “air gap” between the parking garage and office complex, and concrete, glass, and iron were the preferred construction materials, in contrast to the brick, Art Deco look that dominates downtown. Upon completion, the University Club moved into the top floor, an also-ran social club for Flint’s almost elite. Genesee Bank, the largest tenant, put up a neon orange sign atop in the building in a space age font.

Right down the street from the main drag, Saginaw, Genesee Towers was actually a status address for a short time. Legend has it the building’s sign was visible from certain vantage points in far away Port Huron.

Sender liked the design so much he used it in Nashville, too, for his (again) iconoclastically plural Parkway Towers.

In Nashville, it still looks like any other modern office building. No big deal. But in a city like Flint? It’s like catching a Hollywood starlet without any makeup on. It’s Jessica Simpson before Proactiv. It’s Snooki in the morning. The faults you’d never noticed before are suddenly obvious.

Genesee Towers was Flint’s first major office construction since the Roaring Twenties, and from the onset it was clear that the city had bitten off more than it could chew. The first winter, melting snow from the parking garage leaked down onto the swanky office digs on the first floor. By the early 1980s, just a little over a decade after grand opening, hulking cement chunks hurtled from the building down onto the pedestrians and motorists below.

Yikes!

Like almost anything in Flint that emerged after the early boom years of the automotive industry, a rotten stench of failure and false promises emanated from its premises early and often. When Kumar Vemupalli bought Genesee Towers in 1997, it was in rough shape.

In proud Flint tradition, it only got worse.

Flint condemned the building in 2004. After some expensive and thoroughly botched legal wrangling, the city took possession of the building for a cool $1.5 million, along with forking over millions of dollars in damages to Vemupalli. Only, of course, to sell the building for $1 to Uptown Reinvestment Company.

Couldn’t they have at least tried putting the building up on the McDonald’s extra value menu or something? “Genesee Towers – first come, first serve!” People pay more for Chicken McNuggets every day.

Right before Flint sold the building, the Flint Chapter of Architects put on a competition to see who could come up with the best way to revive Genesee Towers. Plans included turning the giant parking lot across from the building into a park, and adapting the building’s ten floors of office space for mixed uses.

Contrast that to the current plan of action – demolishing the building and its eight floors of parking space and converting it into a park. Proponents say Genesee Towers is simply too big for Flint, a shrinking city in a shrinking county. Downtown is on the up-and-up and blight has got to go.

Maybe they’re right, but the Flint skyline is going look a little lonelier come December 22.

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4 thoughts on “Christmas in Flint

  1. I personally don’t think the design of Sender’s buildings or the Associated Bank Plaze are aesthetically displeasing from the outside. That said, while putting a parking garage in an office tower is certainly convenient for tenants, psychologically its discomfiting. There’s something about parking garages that lacks prestige.

  2. I’ll be damned if you haven’t made me a bit sad to see the towers go, George, but I’m still glad about the demolition. That competition yielded ideas just short of ridiculous. A mixed use development is one of the more practical.

    I’d rather see surrounding buildings get some attention. There are still a lot of vacant, salvageable structures in the downtown area.

    Maybe my viewpoint is just a coping mechanism. The Flint skyline will forever be changed, making Flint even less significant, and that sucks. But the reality is that no one–especially the City of Flint–is going to revive it. And living among dead things is depressing.

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