A sprawling industrial complex in Detroit’s Elijah McCoy neighborhood is entering a new phase as a community hub where artists can cohabitate, work on projects, shop for groceries and party.
Dreamtroit opened in July for a community of creators seeking high ceilings and low rent. Co-owners Matthew Naimi and Oren Goldenberg completed the $28 million redevelopment of a former auto factory on the outskirts of the Henry Ford Health campus. Naimi called it an “anti-gentrification project” during a September tour with BridgeDetroit, noting an $80,000 income cap for eligible tenants and reduced rental rates meant to prevent artists from being displaced as the city faces an affordable housing shortage.
“What typically happens is an area that may be run down or seedy attracts the creative class, and then as that area becomes hipper or more attractive due to the actions of the creative class, development happens, driving rents up and forcing creatives to move on,” Naimi said. “You can see development happen around Dreamtroit, but it’s protecting the creative class with the rent structure and zoning that allows us to make noise and operate late.”
It’s another adaptation of the century-old former Warren Motor Car Co. headquarters, which also includes Naimi’s public recycling center, environmental education programs, the nonprofit arts foundation Make Art Work and bohemian hangout known for bonfire parties under the full moon.
Seventy-six minimalist apartments were built, including studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom units at varying tiers of affordable rates. Ten of the cheapest studio apartments, starting at under $500 per month, are “community units” with shared kitchens and bathrooms cleaned by Dreamtroit staff.
“A lot of our artist communities that don’t live in Michigan have set up these co-living situations that are similar,” Naimi said. “Our idea was to do more, but the banks were reticent to allow a larger development that has that. Now that we’ve got them up and running it’s a proof of concept. If we decide to do another project similar to this we’ll definitely push for more community units.”
The project also includes artist workshops and commercial tenants. Michigan & Trumbull pizzeria, a new Marble Bar location and Metro Grocery are expected to open later this year.
Naimi said the redevelopment project started small. The death of beloved graffiti writer Jordan TEAD Vaughn, who fell through a roof while creating art in 2017, was a wakeup call. Naimi said the building was deteriorating and dangerous.
Repairing the roof would cost $3 million, and Naimi said he didn’t want to raise rent costs for tenants. So he began exploring other options and funding support, which led to affordable housing plans.
Financing for the project came from a patchwork of tax breaks and loans offered by Capital Impact Partners, Invest Detroit, Local Initiatives Support Corp., the Detroit Housing for the Future Fund and others. The complicated organizational chart was so comical that Naimi had it tattooed on his arm.
“If we knew exactly how hard it would be, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” Naimi said. “That’s why people don’t do these projects, it’s very difficult and takes a long time. I look at this as an art project, because it’s not driven by a bottom line.”
The funding subsidizes reduced rental rates and covers the cost to clean up environmental contamination at the site.
Half of the units are offered with rent meant to be affordable for those earning 50 percent of the area median income for the metro Detroit region, which equals $828 or less for a studio, $888 for a one-bedroom unit and $1,066 for a two-bedroom unit.
Thirty percent of the units are available for people earning up to 80 percent of the area median income, which ranges between $1,326 for a studio, $1,421 for a one-bedroom and $1,706 for a two-bedroom apartment. The remaining 20 percent are for people earning under 120 percent of the area median income, which qualifies as “workforce housing” under federal guidelines.
Naimi said the grocery store will have early morning and late night hours to accommodate residents who don’t have a traditional work schedule.
“There’s a whole different part of the economy, especially for the gig workers and freelancers of the world,” Naimi said.
Apartment units feature exposed brick, concrete floors, high ceilings and splashy graffiti pieces dating back to the 1990s. Inside, walls across the complex are covered in colorful street art created with permission from the owners.
Manufacturing companies formerly occupying the historic industrial site built vehicle engines, auto parts and refrigerators before the factory was occupied by a grocery wholesaler. The buildings later became a secluded place for graffiti writers to work on their art, Naimi said.
The buildings are bordered by a mainline railroad and the Lincoln Street Art Park, an outdoor sculpture garden and graffiti canvas. Most of the surrounding area is vacant land. Naimi said Dreamtroit creates an anchor destination for cultural activities, educational programs and commercial business.
But change is coming to the neighborhood. Henry Ford Health is planning a major expansion of its New Center footprint in concert with a housing development led by Detroit Pistons Owner Tom Gores. The $2.5 billion undertaking will add a medical research center, hospital tower, 550 residential units, parking structure and public parks.
“That neighborhood is going to look a lot different in five to 10 years,” Naimi said. “We believe Dreamtroit is going to be a spot that has its own identity in the Northwest Goldberg and Elijah McCoy neighborhoods.”
Sasha Corder, director of development for Make Art Work, said professional development programs will be offered out of the complex next year. The programs will help local artists learn how to manage finances and insurance and to compete for grant funding or commissioned art projects.
“What we’re trying to do at Make Art Work is level out the playing field,” Corder said. “One of the biggest challenges we have right now is getting the resources to more street artists. When it comes to city proposals, it’s about how well you can write your artist statement and how well you can put together the visuals for your proposal.”