Detroit: A City on the Rise

By Audrey LaForest

Private investment from the state’s development community is helping to rewrite the narrative for what Detroit will look like in the future. Within the next 10 years, local real estate mavens and developers are envisioning a walkable, diverse and connected city, where residents have access to retail, cultural activities and commercial centers all within a short distance from where they live.

Developer’s Playground

In 2016, Detroit saw development deals ranging from the Detroit Pistons’ plans to move back downtown from Auburn Hills to Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert’s plans for a 20-story office tower and a 16-story residential tower near Campus Martius that will be known as the Monroe Block.

While major developments have had a place in Detroit since the 1990s (e.g., the city’s three casinos, Ford Field and Comerica Park, and construction of the Compuware building), development today is taking on roles both big and small.

“The difference now is that the city really isn’t relying on mega projects, but is relying on dozens and even hundreds of small, more organic projects that really have to do with creating community and creating neighborhoods,” said Peter Cummings, principal at The Platform, a development firm dedicated to rebuilding the city.

Cummings and business partner Dietrich Knoer are leading development projects throughout the city such as the mixed-use apartment complex, Third and Grand.

In March, the company broke ground on the first phase of Baltimore Station, a $7.5 million mixed-use development at the Baltimore Street stop of the QLine streetcar that includes sidewalk retail and restaurant destinations. The second phase of the project includes an additional 150 residential units and 20,000 square feet of retail. The project should be completed by 2019.


Additionally, The Platform team has invested in the redevelopment of the Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings, which the group purchased as part of a $12.2 million deal. Plans for the New Center-based historic landmark buildings include office, entertainment and retail components for the Fisher Building, and retail, office and residential spaces for the Kahn Building. Each building could see in excess of $50 million in investment for the redevelopment, Cummings said.

The Platform is also committed to the city’s neighborhoods, particularly in the Islandview, Livernois and Six Mile Road areas, and Brightmoor, where Cummings purchased five properties for just over $79,000. Rehab of the Brightmoor properties is underway.

“For the recovery that’s occurring in the city of Detroit to be sustainable, it needs to be far more inclusive than it has been,” Cummings said. “There are swaths of the population that have not been participating in the recovery, and they need to participate, and a lot of them are found in the neighborhoods.”

Welcome to Paradise

Near the heart of the city, five teams of developers are heavily vested in the Paradise Valley Cultural and Entertainment District — a $52 million investment within the area formerly known as Harmonie Park.

The projects include Hastings Place, a 60-unit loft apartment with retail and office space and a five-floor parking deck, led by Michigan Chronicle publisher Hiram Jackson and Queen Lillian Development; and Harmonie Club Hotel, a 25- to 30- room hotel in an East Grand River building currently occupied by the Carr Center, led by Patricia Cole of Cole Financial Services Inc. and developer Roger Basmajian.

Other projects for the district are the Paradise Valley Jazz Club and a 16,000 square foot expansion of architecture firm Hamilton Anderson Associates led by the firm’s president and co-owner, Rainy Hamilton; and the addition of residential space above La Casa de la Habana cigar bar led by bar owner Ismail Houmani, who purchased the building on Randolph Street for $1.17 million.

Dennis Archer Jr., president of Archer Corporate Services and chair of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s board of directors, purchased property at 1407 and 1427 Randolph Street in partnership with investors at Gotham Capital Partners. The team is planning a $2.75 million mixed use redevelopment, which will include a cocktail lounge and office space for up to six tenants. Archer said he anticipates his part of the Paradise Valley redevelopment could be completed as early as the fall.

“We want this to be a world-class destination, where there’s art, there’s culture, there’s commerce going on, there’s a creative class there, and there’s world-class hospitality — whether it’s a jazz bar, a lounge, a restaurant or a coffee shop,” Archer said.

Connecting the City

It has been just under two years since architect and urban planner Maurice Cox was appointed director of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department, but he is already unleashing strategies to get the city’s neighborhoods that lie outside of the 7.2 square miles of greater downtown involved.

“A lot of Detroit’s historic neighborhoods were structured for walkability … but over the decades, they’ve fallen into disrepair,” Cox said. “One of the initiatives that we’ve focused on is trying to make those commercial corridors walkable again.”

To get these “neighborhood-serving Main Streets” back — you can already see them popping up on streets like Kercheval and Agnes in West Village, for example — Cox envisions integrating other forms of mobility and transit infrastructure such as protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks, tree canopies, improved lighting and, most importantly, small businesses that are able to fill a void in neighborhood services.

This year, Cox and his team are deploying a set of six coordinated revitalization strategies, one of which focuses on the Fitzgerald neighborhood tucked within the Livernois-McNichols corridor. Another includes a new streetscape plan for the Livernois Avenue of Fashion.

The Fitzgerald development strategy includes rehabbing “dozens and dozens” of homes, Cox said, and turning more than 300 vacant lots into a variety of passive and active green spaces, which will include a neighborhood park at its center and a greenway for bicycles and pedestrians that will connect the University of Detroit Mercy with Marygrove College.

On the city’s eastside, Cox, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. recently announced a framework for the east riverfront, which will include an expansion of public space, a call for proposals to renovate vacant buildings, and a riverfront promenade that will complete the connection from the Renaissance Center to the MacArthur Bridge at Belle Isle.

“(Developers) talk about the ‘missing middle’ density in Detroit — the townhouses, the row houses, the mid rise, the courtyard buildings — all of those types that are bigger than a single family, but smaller than a high rise,” Cox said. “Detroit has enormous potential to increase those options, and I think those are going to be the opportunities for development in neighborhoods in addition to restoring some of the single family housing stock to its original splendor.”

Audrey LaForest is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

Read more from this issue below: 

Dan Gilbert Taking Detroit to Overdrive

Help Wanted: Closing Michigan’s Skilled Trades Gap

The Ilitch Touch: Transforming Detroit’s Downtown

Economic Development Experts: Detroit’s Reinvention Must Extend to Neighborhoods

With development showing no signs of slowing, engaging Detroiters in thoughtful dialogue on the city’s long-term vision and building up neighborhoods is necessary to continue Detroit’s momentum panelists said in the session, “Strengthening Detroit: Partners in Economic Development.”

Citing the recently announced plans to create more public parkland on the city’s east riverfront development, Maurice Cox, planning director for the city of Detroit, said the decision to forego building more high-end apartments and condos followed extensive conversations with the public.

“The riverfront is home to an enormous diversity of people who use it. Our thought was that we need to give the riverfront back to the people. Private development will shape it, but the people will have an impact,” Cox said.

The topic kicked off a conversation on thoughtful inclusion and shared opportunity as projects come online across the city.
Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones said she would like to see more jobs for longtime residents who weathered the city’s economic collapse.

“We need to get our young people involved in the development taking place. It’s a great opportunity for those who want to do something downtown but in the communities as well,” Jones said, calling for more apprenticeship programs.

Moddie Turay, executive vice president of real estate and financial services for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., added that the city’s economic progress must go beyond downtown and Midtown to truly be considered a renaissance.

32394390513_e732d2e104_o“There’s a lot that’s happening here. We’re just not there yet,” Turay said. “We have another five or so years to go.”

Cox said leaders should consider development taking place downtown as a “both and” scenario, suggesting that catalytic projects such as The District Detroit and the riverfront can be leveraged to positively impact downtown and the neighborhoods.

“The soul of this city is its neighborhoods. The heart of a city inadvertently always happens at its core and grows out. The challenge is a lot of American cities forget about the soul and forget about the neighborhoods.”

MORE: Read more about the innovative work that is being done to ensure Detroit’s comeback continues. 

That is not the case in the Motor City, Cox said, pointing to development taking place at anchor institutions like University of Detroit Mercy and Marygrove College that is helping create full-scale neighborhood recovery north of Six Mile Road.

In answering a question on the importance of talent, Justin Robinson, vice president of business attraction for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said it is the No. 1 asset investors from other states and countries look for when deciding to relocate.

“The availability, volume and quality of talent is a key part in attracting business. To do that, you have to have the neighborhoods that talent wants to live in,” he said. “When we have that, we’ll see the economic development flow in as a result.”

“There’s tremendous progress being made in Southeast Michigan and it’s important to understand that companies are looking at the labor of not just one community; they are looking at an entire region. We need to be better at communicating how Detroit and the region are collaborating around creating that workforce,” Robinson added.

Panelists also acknowledged that the business climate, including taxes and regulation, still is not as attractive as it could be, with Cox and Jones addressing the impact of the community benefits agreement (CBA) ordinance Detroiters passed in November of last year.

Still, Cox said: “We need to give it time to play out.”

Read more from the 2017 Detroit Policy Conference:

Christopher Ilitch: Teamwork, Collaboration Will Guide Detroit’s Bright Future