Lofty residential visions

Although not nearly as gaudy as riverfront promenades, state-of-the-art sports stadiums or mammoth casinos, the relatively simple (in theory) yet foreign concept of people living in downtown Detroit is a key component to its rejuvenation. While one can find 9-to-5 activity during the workweek, an active entertainment scene, and several pockets of full-capacity residential components (Millender and Trolley Plaza, among others), Detroit is not exactly a 24/7 beehive of activity. A cohesive residential fabric remains elusive.

The Washington Boulevard sculpture “Century of Light” includes a sensor that reacts to pedestrians, generating different light patterns as people walk by. While installing the sculpture in the late 1970s, the artist, Jim Pallas, included a tabulator. An average of five people per night walked past. Five.

Frankly, other than activity in and around the theaters, nightclubs and stadiums, little has changed to increase that activity rate. A 24/7 downtown relies on the minute aspects of everyday life — dry cleaners, drug stores, video stores, etc. — as the foundation.

The city and its planning and economic development agencies have long repeated the 24/7 mantra, envisioning a downtown replete with lofts, cafés, restaurants, retail and more. They have now been joined by the Super Bowl Host Committee (fast becoming a curious engine for development), whose stated goal is at least 2,000 new residential units in rehabbed buildings, as well as 60 new small businesses, by 2006.

The twist inherent in this noble goal is that, in many ways, it seeks to make Detroit into something it never was. Historically, downtown Detroit was bereft of residents, particularly when compared with other cities and their high-density residential cores (see Chicago). Detroiters lived in glorious neighborhoods in Henry Ford-enabled detached homes with two-car garages.

Fast forward to 2002, however, and the prospect of living downtown, with the multitudes of entertainment options (and lack of a commute), has become an aesthetically appealing and trendy possibility. Why live in a prefab townhouse in Troy when you can set up in a high-ceilinged, exposed-brick 1920s loft?

Yet in the grand scheme of things, the number of available units downtown is paltry. The 61-unit Lofts on Woodward is far and away the leading new residential development in downtown’s business district, and was created via the laborious amalgamation of the Ferguson, Healy and Beck’s Shoes buildings.

At the other end of the spectrum, Town Pump owner Sean Harrington appears to have lined up financing for his long-in-the-making Iodent Toothpaste Building project, behind the Fox Theatre on Park Avenue. After several years of “misplaced” architectural drawings at city offices, financing is now in place for a $4 million conversion into 16 apartments, with “Centaur,” a two-story “Parisian art deco billiards hall” as its centerpiece. Several years ago, Harrington bemoaned the lack of “gap” financing for these projects, as the costs to rehab the buildings, when compared with anticipated income, simply did not make financial sense without some sort of kicker (low-interest loans, tax credits, etc.). Things have certainly changed: Harrington said HUD had lent “a good chunk,” while the project has received tax relief to sweeten the deal. He expects to begin construction next month.

Two blocks down Park Avenue, the original headquarters of the Kmart Corp., née Kresge, now known as the Kales Building, has languished in limbo. Suddenly, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The city recently granted the developers, Ferlito Construction of Roseville and the Mansur Group of Indianapolis, permission to construct a tunnel from the Kales Building to the Grand Circus Park garage to provide the secured parking the bank demands. (Negotiations on leasing 190 parking spaces continue.) The project also recently received a $2.5 million loan from the Downtown Development Authority, and $1.5 million from the Detroit Investment Fund. These additional dollars, which came in three months ago, are characterized by Ferlito’s John Golle as “Super Bowl-is-coming” money. Whether or not the game is the catalyst, something has broken the logjam at both ends of Park Avenue.

On the horizon are the 163-unit Merchant’s Row project being developed by the Schostak Group, and the former Superfund site and now radium-free Metropolitan Building at John R and Broadway, which Eric Larson is reportedly developing into some 70 units. Even with these projects, however, the supply is well short of the 2,000-unit goal.

In April 2000, at the Compuware groundbreaking, Peter Karmanos announced that 6,000 “computer geeks” were heading downtown. While that number, along with Compuware’s stock price, has since plummeted, Compuware nevertheless represents a prime opportunity for a residential foothold. Compuware has been reluctant to give hard numbers on what percentage of the now-3,700 employees heading downtown are expected to relocate so they can walk (or People Move) to work, but the 2,700-space, 12-story (12!) parking structure that has been built does not foster optimism. Obviously, someone expects a lot of commuters.

Compuware spokesman Doug Kuiper resisted my request for a companywide e-mail poll to see who would make the move, but he does see progress. According to Kuiper, “Nearly 300 Compuware employees already live in Detroit, and we’ve had a number of additional employees express interest in making Detroit their home. Compuware has held several housing events for employees that featured Detroit apartments, lofts, condominiums and homes. These events have been very well attended, and numerous employees have signed on with local housing developers.” Three hundred out of 3,700 is less than 10 percent.

David Farbman of the Farbman Group, which developed the Lofts on Woodward just blocks from Compuware headquarters, says more Compuware employees are trickling in to check out units. Farbman says the lease rate is one or two per week, with 48 units complete and an additional 13 being readied.

Ironically, a cornice that fell from the beautifully rehabbed Ferguson Building (one of three that make up the LoW complex), was blamed for the 1958 pedestrian death of 80-year-old Myrtle Taggart. Then-Mayor Miriani decreed that “all downtown property owners remove any dangerous gingerbread.” The edict led to the stripping of ornaments from vintage buildings in the lower Woodward corridor, paving the way for the hideous, decaying 1960s-era facades still in place on many of the buildings.

Given this ignominious legacy, it’s only fitting that the Ferguson Building obtain redemption by leading the quest for residential living downtown.

So, who’s making the move? The Lofts on Woodward’s tenants range from a policeman to transplanted professional Chicagoans to fledgling “small-plate restaurateurs” to engineers to a Metro Times sales director. Predominantly single, predominantly professional. These demographics jibe with a recent market analysis commissioned by the Downtown Development Authority, which concluded that target market for downtown residents are: “the New Bohemians, Urban Achievers, and University/College Affiliates ... true urbanites who prefer to live downtown for its diversity, as well as the availability of a variety of activities, cultural opportunities, restaurants and clubs.” If you consider yourself within one of these groups, well, it sounds like downtown living is right up your alley.

If you have kids, well ... forget it. Actually, the study does recognize a small market segment for downtown families (12 percent to 21 percent), described as “multi-ethnic households that have a preference for urban living. Most of the adults in these households were raised in or near an urban center and have rejected the suburban alternative; most will already have made appropriate school accommodations — public, charter, parochial or private.” Combined with the new bohemians et al., this sounds like a prepackaged, albeit antiseptic, demographic for a thriving downtown.

More than casinos and riverfront promenades, the success of the projects described above will determine whether this utopian vision is ever realized.

Casey Coston writes about development in Detroit. E-mail him at [email protected]
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