Why a successful lawyer became an advocate for Detroit neighborhood development

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“All these (real estate) deals are made before Black people really even know what’s happening. This isn’t how things should work in a majority-Black city,” said real estate developer Chase Cantrell. (BridgeDetroit photos by Valaurian Waller)

By his mid-20s, Chase Cantrell had an office on the 36th floor of the Renaissance Center. It had a commanding view of the river, Windsor and a bit of downtown.

During the early 2010s, he could walk downtown and Midtown and feel pride in its revival. That’s because, as a lawyer for the Dykema law firm, he helped seal the deals to redevelop historic buildings, including many that sat vacant for years, and construct new housing and commercial spaces. 

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One deal changed his life. For the first time in the dozens of projects he worked on, Black investors were involved. The older Black men implored the talented young Black man to become an investor.

Think about how you build wealth, Cantrell recalls one of telling him. 

The men’s words stirred a plan Cantrell had always known he would pursue. Being a lawyer was just one step of his journey.  

At age 30, Cantrell quit his six-figure job. He lived in Paris for a year, flirting with the idea of forging a career in Europe. Paris, the City of Light, made him appreciate his deep connection to the Motor City. 

He returned to Detroit with a mission. He was going to find a way to boost the level of Black-led real estate development in the city.  He created a nonprofit that has helped train hundreds of residents in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck on how to become neighborhood investors. 

He’s also leading by example. Besides being a consultant, teacher and technical guide, he’s an active Detroit investor.

“Now I’m doing development. That’s the final fulfilment of the dream those elders in the Meijer project had for me,” Cantrell said. 

He recently unveiled plans to revive a blighted, vacant commercial building in the Bagley/Fitzgerald neighborhood. The anchor tenant in the 8,000-square-foot building at 7400 W. McNichols will be a Black-owned brewery.

In Corktown, his nonprofit purchased three empty parcels in the shadow of Michigan Central Station. He has partnered with the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning to develop an “equitable development scorecard” to determine what gets built at the corner of 14th and Dalzelle streets.

Cantrell talked to BridgeDetroit recently about why he walked away from that six-figure job and big, glitzy development deals to focus on game-changing neighborhood development. 

BridgeDetroit: So, OK, you’re at the University of Michigan studying law. At what point did you have an idea of what kind of law you wanted to pursue?

Chase Cantrell: There was a great moment during my second summer at this Chicago law firm called Goldberg Kohn. I was an intern. An older partner at the firm was taking me to lunch. As we’re walking from the firm to lunch, he’s pointing out buildings. And he’s like, ‘Well, in 1973, we developed that building, and in 1975, when I was an associate, we developed this one.’ Lawyers talk like that, they say, ‘we developed’ as though lawyers were the developers. 

Literally, he could see his career history as we are walking through downtown Chicago. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I want to be able to do that one day.’

What’s great is I can do that in Detroit. I just went to get lunch today at Go! Sy Thai in Midtown at The Auburn. I worked on that building transaction. And the Broderick Tower. The David Stott. The former Free Press Building.

I can walk through greater downtown and point out the transactions that I worked on. It fuels that moment I had with him. 

BridgeDetroit: So, after law school, you get hired by Dykema Gossett in Detroit?  

Cantrell: Yes. I started practicing law in September of 2008. That’s when the crash hit. All of these first-year lawyers across the U.S., we’re all scared we are about to get fired. 

In the Detroit market, a lot of firms kept some of their younger, cheaper talent. They fired some of their middle tier; you know, some of their fourth-year, fifth-year associates. So, long story short, I got a chance to do a lot of stuff. I got a chance to do real estate and corporate and some discovery related to litigation.

Once the economy started coming back, I had done enough to be able to do corporate and real estate. Which is why when there were these complex New Markets Tax Credit deals, or Low-Income Housing Tax Credit deals, it was useful to have me.  I was creating a really interesting hybrid practice for myself. 

BridgeDetroit: Where was your office?

Cantrell: In the RenCen, Tower 400, floor 36. My view was beautiful. I could see all of the Windsor skyline, the bridge, the river and maybe a quarter of downtown. It was inspiring, actually. I do miss that. 

BridgeDetroit: And the pay was good?

Cantrell: I was making $120,000 a year as a twentysomething. But you work for it. I was working 60, 70 hours a week. 

BridgeDetroit: Obviously, you are going through a lot of change in terms of social status. You have a high-pressure job. Were you confident? Were you insecure? Were you just too damn busy to think about it?  

Cantrell: Once we got past 2008 and 2009, you know, when there was the stress of losing your job because of the economy, after that, I was pretty confident. I knew that I did not want to become a partner. The plan was to do well, build my network, try to enjoy it and learn as much as possible. And still pivot. What happened is the pivot changed.

The Pivot

Chase Cantrell and his partner Jason Headen at their McNichols project. (BridgeDetroit photos by Valaurian Waller)

BridgeDetroit: The pivot, meaning the plan you mentioned before, that you knew early on in life that you would become an attorney, and then maybe go into politics?

Cantrell: Yes, the pivot changed. I’m in a Black city. I define Detroit that way in my mind. And all of the clients are white, wealthy and male. I’m thinking to myself  ‘What is this ecosystem?’  

I’m closing multi-million-dollar deals with the partners that I’m working with. It’s actually my job to talk to the bank and initiate the flow of funds. I’m wiring millions of dollars. This is sort of insane looking back at it. 

I only had one deal where there was any level of influential Black people involved. That was the Meijer on Eight Mile and Woodward. The investors, as I’m having them sign the closing documents, they are saying, ‘Chase, you need to buy property. Chase, you want to be the investor and developer if you ever get a chance.’

This is their advice to me. I can’t remember having a rapport at a closing with any of my white clients. These are Black men in their 60s or early 70s seeing a young Black and saying, ‘Listen, you don’t want to be a lawyer all your life. Think about how you are building wealth.’

I knew it was time for my pivot. At this point, I’m 30. Dykema was a very collegial firm. It felt like family. I still hang out with some of my former colleagues. But, the work, I couldn’t see myself doing it for the next 20 years. 

BridgeDetroit: What was the plan?

Cantrell: I went to Paris for a year, and people were like, ‘Oh, Chase is crazy.’ 

BridgeDetroit: What did you do in Paris?

Cantrell: My best friend, another Detroit-born Renaissance (High School) grad, we studied abroad while we were in undergrad together. We went to Paris back in 2004. She stayed. She has lived very successfully in Europe. 

She convinced me to spend some time in Europe to see if I wanted to build a life there. By 2013, I was fluent in French. I had been studying it since high school. I’m still connected to French culture. I went for a year. I taught while I was there. I looked at legal positions. I realized I missed Detroit.

It’s not just my family and friends. I missed this place. I missed this city. I’ve felt this several times. I’ve done other studies abroad. I have worked in Canada twice. Every time I leave, I feel like, ‘Wow, I really want to come back.’

The lure of Detroit 

Speramus Partners’ project at 7400 W. McNichols will join a large-scale effort underway to revive housing, public space and businesses in Detroit’s Bagley/Fitzgerald neighborhood. (Dokes Design Architecture rendering)

BridgeDetroit:  What is it about Detroit?

Cantrell:  Part of the tribe that I’m a part of  … there is a sense of responsibility. We have been lucky enough to build successful lives in this city. But we know that is not a common story. So, there is a sense of service. 

The writer Marsha Music has this phrase, ‘People come to Detroit to save Detroit. They don’t know it, but they are actually being saved by Detroit.’  

That resonates to me. There is something healing to me about being in a Black city. Detroit is a unique experience. The only other city I have felt the same energy is New Orleans. 

There is something to be said about living amongst other Black people, there’s something that I need. I hate to say it this way, but, there are so many challenges that we face in Detroit. It’s also a place you can innovate and be creative. You can find and build community, not to say you can’t do that in other places. 

Because I’m from this place, it feels like I’m connected in a deeper way to this 139 square miles. I don’t regret coming back to Detroit at all. 

Building Community Value

BridgeDetroit: And so you move back to Detroit and now your focus is on neighborhood development, and you start something called Building Community Value. What is Building Community Value? 

Cantrell: So, Building Community Value officially incorporated March 1, 2016. I thought BCV would be a nonprofit developer, that was my concept. I thought  it was important to have an organization to be Black-led, to be in Black neighborhoods. Personally, I am interested in commercial real estate. I was thinking BCV could assist in developing our commercial corridors. But, that shifted.

BridgeDeroit: Yes, you became associated with something called Better Buildings, Better Blocks. That’s the program that teaches residents the nuts and bolts of small-scale development in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. How do you, or Building Community Value, get connected with that? 

Cantrell: People kept asking me – and they continue to ask me to this day – to help on residential projects. That makes sense for a burgeoning developer to enter into this ecosystem that way. 

The class started before BCV started. Peter Allen is a lecturer at the (University of Michigan) business school. He teaches this class at U of M about real estate. He started teaching this class in Detroit. He had a free classroom at the U of M Detroit Center. The School of Social Work was going to help him administer it, but there wasn’t much money to support it.  

Janell O’Keefe, who is still involved with the program, was working at the School of Social Work at the time. She read an article about me. She emailed me and said, ‘I think we should have coffee.’ We met. She told me about the class. 

Once I sat in the class, it shifted my thinking. You can only do so many development projects as one organization. But what happens if you teach others how to do it? And that was the shift in my philosophy. To create an ecosystem of people how to do this work.

Peter handed over the program to BCV. That’s how we went forward.  I fund-raised for it. We got a Knight Cities Challenge (grant) in 2017. It allowed me to pay myself something. Savings run out quicker than you can ever anticipate. I got into real financial challenges because of starting a nonprofit, and I could not pay myself at first. I still had a mortgage. I still had school debt. I still had some credit card debt. By the time we won the Knight Cities Challenge, I was definitely digging myself out of a hole. 

‘A sort of coming into consciousness… ’

BridgeDetroit: I think I should ask an obvious question. You mentioned that conversation with Black investors in the Meijer deal. You talked about how important it is to have Black-led development in Black neighborhoods. And to do that, you walked away from the big, glitzy deals downtown and Midtown. Why change your life around so much to focus on neighborhood development? 

Cantrell: Just all of the vacant property I see in Detroit – it didn’t make systemic sense to me. I’m seeing brand new shiny buildings or rehabbed buildings in Midtown, downtown and Brush Park. I was living in Brush Park when the head of the real estate group for Dykema was one of the leaders behind the M-1 Rail project. So, I heard about it before it was publicly known. I was living in front of where Little Caesars Arena was going to go up and was aware of those conversations before it became publicly known. 

I was seeing development around me and was hearing rumblings of more development going to come. I understood the level of investments. I understood how these conversations unfolded between lawyers, developers and the City. I was seeing the insiders’ game. At first, I was proud to know about projects before others knew. There was something exciting about that. 

Until, I realized how f_____ up that is. You don’t have community input and you don’t have push back. All these deals are made before Black people really even know what’s happening. This isn’t how things should work in a majority-Black city  

Those Black investors behind the Meijer deal. They were mirroring some of my thoughts, and in  some ways filling in gaps. They were older and had been around Coleman (Young) and others. They just had a philosophy about how things should be and how things were at a different time. 

That was a sort of coming into consciousness for me. Now, I’m doing development. That’s the final fulfilment of the dream those elders in the Meijer project had for me.

I look back how naive I was in my 20s. I also realize there was no one really to lift the veil for me. I’m only four-and-a-half years in the process of being steeped in community development.

It’s funny to me how I used to think about real estate. It has clearly shifted. 

One thought on “Why a successful lawyer became an advocate for Detroit neighborhood development

  1. Great news! I’m currently in the middle of renovating two homes on Cadillac Blvd. My daughter forwarded this inspirational story as I plan to start a non profit that would reno home exteriors on the East side. The goal is to improve home functionality and aesthetics. Hope to hear more about this program’s success. Good luck!

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