Corktown residents say it’s time to send a message to all future developers that Detroit’s oldest neighborhood will fight to save its historic buildings.
The Southwest Detroit community has seen a flurry of interest by outside developers since Ford Motor Co. declared in 2018 it is investing $740 million in the area, including reviving the long-dead Michigan Central Station. There’s a new seven-story boutique hotel planned that will raze a historic building. New townhomes are being built amid the historic single family homes. Longtime businesses like the popular Onassis Coney Island have abruptly shut as the building owners seek more lucrative tenants.
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With so much change taking place and more on the way, residents say the time is now to defend its historic architecture and the character of the diverse community,
The first test of that stance is happening now with a multi-million dollar proposal to build a new seven-story apartment building and parking garage in the heart of the neighborhood.
Michigan and Church development
The proposed development would build a block-long, 188-unit apartment building on the part of Michigan Avenue currently home to Bucharest Grill. The building would be demolished and the popular eatery would be moved one block away and become part of the ground floor retail in a new three-story parking garage on the 1500 block of Church Street near Trumbull. To make way for the garage, the developers want to demolish a warehouse whose origins date back to 1894.
Also part of the development proposal is to build seven townhouses behind the apartments.
For months now, a growing number of residents have been telling the developer and various city officials that the new buildings will clog several residential streets with traffic, raise the level of noise and light pollution and further gentrify the area. That’s because even the apartments designated as “affordable housing” are too expensive for many Detroit residents — an assertion backed up by data of city income levels.
Last month, over a dozen residents along with the Corktown Historical Society urged the Detroit Historic District Commission to rule against the developer’s plan to raze the Church Street Building, known for years as the Downtown Self-Storage building. Part of it was first built in 1894 and operated as a saw mill. The building was expanded in 1916 and became the Red Arrow Soda factory.
“I find it absolutely ridiculous that there is a plan to demolish an important building in a historic district for a PARKING STRUCTURE!” resident Mindy Huestis wrote to the commission. That was pretty much the tone of many of the residents’ letters.
The Historic Commission gave an advisory ruling that the building be saved. The developers didn’t change their plans.
Developer needs to find parking spaces
The development group is called Oxford Perennial. It’s made up of Farmington Hills-based Hunter Pasteur Homes, Chicago-based Oxford Capital Group and Southfield-based Forbes Co.y. Separately, the groups have invested and helped build such things as shopping malls, luxury hotels and suburban tract housing.
Hunter Pasteur and Oxford are also the main developers behind a seven-story boutique hotel, the 227-room Godfrey Hotel, planned in Corktown. That development will be built two blocks west from the planned apartment building. Nathan Forbes, managing partner of Forbes Co., is an investor in the hotel.
Construction of the $74 million hotel at 1401 Michigan Ave. is expected to begin soon, pending the demolition of a vacant building that years ago housed administrative offices for the Detroit Lions and, later, the City Cab Co.
As part of the hotel deal with the City, the group promised to build 170 parking spaces for the hotel. The parking garage planned for Church Street would fulfill that promise.
Building the new parking garage eases the growing traffic concerns of the neighborhood, developers have told residents during public meetings.
There have been four community meetings with the developers so far. At each one, nearly all the residents present raised objections to the plans.
“There is no possible way you are building a parking structure in the neighborhood. It is simply unacceptable,” Rebecca Mazzei stated at a recent public meeting with the developers.
Another resident, Dilaina Daskalov, asked developers at the latest meeting: “I’m wondering if you can see any discrepancy, and what you are claiming is good for the neighborhood and for the community and what the community is actually communicating to you right now.”
Representatives for the developers often reply with a combination that the group is listening to residents’ concerns while also trying to balance the needs of the entire neighborhood. The group also touts the economic benefits and design elements of the buildings. The planned retail will support an estimated 62 permanent jobs, and 300 construction jobs will be created during the building of the new structures.
The Corktown project is expected to pull in $6.1 million in revenue in 2024, its first full year in operation, with annual revenue increasing to $8.2 million in 2025 and $8.8 million by 2028, according to a “pro forma” document the developer provided to the Historic District Commission.
The deal is expected to produce a profit of $459,000 in 2024, and, over the next four years, the “cash flow available” to investors is estimated to range from $1.5 million to $1.9 million annually, according to the document.
The developers did not respond to requests for comment by BridgeDetroit.
Threat to residential streets?
The Church Street building acts as a buffer between the busy Michigan and Trumbull avenues, residents said. But the parking garage and 188-unit apartment building would wipe that out for several residential streets that make up the core of the historic district, many contend.
Corktown resident Lisa Kim lives on one of the residential streets between the proposed garage and apartment building. “I find it impossible to believe that the impact on our streets will be minimal,” Kim said.
Kim and other Corktown residents said they support the need for more housing in the neighborhood. The area is one of the city’s most popular restaurant districts, all of it the result of small business owners who restored historic buildings And interest by outside developers for Corktown property have dramatically increased since Ford Motor Co. announced three years ago that it will invest $740 million in the neighborhood. The automaker plans to make Corktown a hub for its autonomous and electric vehicle research. That includes restoring the long-vacant Michigan Central Station.
At the latest community meeting, the developers said it would agree to save part of the historic Church Street building. It would also reduce the number of parking spaces to less than 400 spaces. The group said it would be open to exploring a way to lower some of the rent in the units set aside as affordable housing.
Apartments too expensive for most Detroiters
The current plan is to keep 20 percent of the 188 units affordable for those making 80 percent or less than the federally designated area median income (AMI). For a family of two, that is $50,240. The use of AMI is often criticized because it includes suburban communities in determining the income levels. The Detroit median household income is just over $30,000.
The developers currently oppose reducing the number of floors in the apartment building.
The developers’ suggested changes have not appeased many neighborhood residents, with many stepping up their objections and starting a petition. It states, in part, that “the preservation of historic structures is an obligation for anyone pursuing development ” in Corktown. In less than 24 hours, more than 70 residents have signed the petition.
Residents say the petition is meant to make clear the community’s stance for future developers who buy historic buildings with the intent to demolish them.
“We ought to have a manifesto, sort of a Corktown for real estate developers, like a ‘Corktown for Dummies’,” resident Brian Mulloy said at a community meeting last week. Mulloy has renovated a historic building at Bagley and Trumbull. “If we don’t establish that this is a line you don’t cross, then we are going to be having this same fight next year and the year after that.”
Because the Michigan and Church development is expected to seek tax incentives for the project, the City requires that a neighborhood advisory council (NAC) be formed. The NAC is made up of nine representatives from the project’s impact area to work directly with the developer and establish community benefits.
Last week, the NAC unanimously agreed to request the historic building be saved, it cut the number of floors planned in the apartment building and find a way to make some of the apartments affordable for Detroiters.
The developers will likely respond during the next public meeting planned for Thursday, April 29 at 6 p.m.