Philip Kafka is creating something quite unique at Warren and Grand River
Drive down any of the main spokes in Detroit and you’re likely to come across groupings of now-vacant buildings—industrial, storage, automotive—which once worked together in their respective neighborhoods.
Past Woodbridge and the Grand River Creative Corridor, you’ll see an example of this now coming back to life. To the left stand various Quonset huts—now residential rentals—and on the right, a park has taken shape between older buildings with new purpose.
In the past four years, many four to eight story apartment buildings have risen in Detroit to meet the demand for more market-rate apartments. In Core City, a different development has taken raw materials—galvanized steel, a parking lot, industrial buildings—to create a whole new district out of mostly vacant spaces. And while it’s not going to solve pressing housing problems in the city, its approach could at least inspire other developers to think more creatively about placemaking.
Much of this redevelopment is the brainchild of Philip Kafka, who started buying land in the area in 2013. Originally from Texas, he founded a successful billboard company in New York City, then started investing in Detroit. Kafka’s also behind the restaurant Takoi, and with his development group Prince Concepts, has recently purchased more properties around the city.
It started with the Quonset huts. Since the community, now called True North, has formed off of Grand River, the developers and architect, Edwin Chan of EC/3, have been recognized internationally with design awards. The huts come in different sizes and layouts, with landscaping adding greenery to the small residential community.
Michele & Chris Gerard
True North Quonset huts
Across the street, various buildings and plots have transformed into new spaces. These oddly-shaped buildings—which sit along Grand River Avenue between St. Leo’s Church and the Grand Trunk Rail line at Warren—were built in the 1920s and 1950s.
Over the years they’ve served various functions, from a radiator shop to a grocery store. Now, as each renovation is completed, they once again work cohesively together.
A building dubbed Sawtooth houses a commissary kitchen and private event space, Astro Coffee Roaster, and the newly opened Ochre Bakery. Another building, called the Pie, sits at the angular corner of Grand River and Warren avenues. Prince Concepts has opened up some of the building, and it now houses Lafayette American Ad Agency and Casting de Khrysophia jewelry designer.
A new restaurant, Magnet, will open nearby in what was an auto repair shop.
(Not everyone has had a smooth transition: Kafka and a longtime boxing gym tenant have recently had disputes over rent.)
And in between these two buildings, on what was for decades a parking lot, a new park has bloomed, with locust and dogwood trees, as well as benches repurposed from walls of a nearby building and remnants of the firehouse that once stood there. Prince Concepts worked with Landscape Architect Julie Bergman of D.I.R.T. Studio to transform the pavement into an 8,000-square-foot urban park; it officially opened May 10.
A party celebrating the opening of the park
The Powerplant Building (formerly Architectural Salvage Warehouse which has since moved to a new location in Islandview), will serve as a covered extension of the park. In warmer weather, a garage door can open allowing local vendors inside to set up like a bazaar, selling local goods. It’s slated to be finished by the end of August.
“The idea is that you can use the things you buy in the public space of the building or in the park, too,” says Kafka. “Read, play chess, have a little picnic.”
But it’s the building now called 5K, which sits between Warren Avenue and the Grand Trunk rail line, that could be one of the more unusual and inspired transformations in the area. Built as a grocery store in the 1950s, future plans call for a complete reimagining of the space.
On one long side of the building, eight apartments will somehow fit, four across and two rows high. Commercial spaces and a newspaper stand facing Warren Avenue will be added to the other side. In between, the roof will be removed and trees will be added as a courtyard for the residents and tenants. Prince Concepts is working with Undecorated Architects on this project.
“Instead of trying to bring a utilitarian building with no significant character back to life,” Kafka says, “we wanted to use existing assets.”
Describing it as “a maze of residential and commercial spaces that are both cozy and ceremonial,” the build will keep the main parts of the 13,500-square-foot building intact: terrazzo floors, 20-foot ceilings. Designs by architect Ish Rafiuddin call for cutting off sections of the roof, which already needed to be replaced, to create courtyards within the buildings that let in a lot more natural light.
Redevelopment is underway at the 5K building
He likens the building to the Eastern Market building which now houses Trinosophes, if the roof was cut out and trees filled an interior courtyard.
“We’re taking this project so far because our renovation projects are about communicating possibility,” he says. “What’s the most we can make with what the past has given us? How can we use the assets, but also improve and enhance what we’ve been given? What is actually possible? We are not interested, as much, in what is simply easy.”
Work is still underway next to True North. A house just south of the huts is currently being renovated, and next to that, a flower farm will soon bloom. And we haven’t seen the last changes for the Quonset huts—a longer, sushi-like row called Caterpillar could be built in the future.
When Kafka talks about all these myriad changes in the area, he speaks in grandiose, but inspired ways. “My overall vision is to create a neighborhood that allows current residents, future residents, and myself the space and place to live a life that is a work of art—a life that is a personal expression,” says Kafka. “That’s the magic of Detroit.”
The term “mixed-use” is a catchall in development. But here, a lot of thought has been put into how buildings can work with the space that’s available.
It’s official: There will be a new plant in Detroit.
On May 21, two votes cleared key elements for the expansion of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) plant on Detroit’s east side. Detroit City Council voted 6-3 in favor of a land transfer and about a dozen other details, and the Michigan Strategic Fund approved tax incentives and funding for the land assembly.
No matter whether you think this is an enormous boon to the city or that a multinational automaker got a sweet deal, it’s undoubtedly a big moment for Detroit, which hasn’t had a new assembly plant built in the city for 30 years.
Here’s everything you need to know about the votes, subsidies, criticisms, and more.
FCA plans to invest $2.5 billion in expanding its Mack Avenue facilities—building a new plant and refitting its Jefferson North Plant—which it says will create nearly 5,000 new jobs.
In order to secure the project’s construction, the city had to acquire 215 acres of land in the plant footprint owned by various real estate companies and entities. It went passed the deadline imposed by FCA, but managed to secure all the necessary land on May 3. The total came to $107.6 million, which will be split between the city and state.
In addition to funding for the land swap deal, City Council also approved the Community Benefits Agreement and tax abatements on two FCA facilities at 50 percent for 12 years. In the CBA, the automaker says it will invest $13.8 million in workforce training and other programs.
Mayor Mike Duggan was obviously pleased with the news, calling it “the greatest day in my term as mayor.”
"Today was historic."
4,950 good-paying jobs are coming to Detroit, and Detroiters will get to apply early for jobs. Special hiring consideration will also be given to returning citizens & veterans.
FCA also requested and got $223.5 million in tax incentives from the state of Michigan—the automaker is investing in three other Michigan plants. According to the Detroit News, that money comes from...
$55 million for land assembly activities including land acquisition and site preparation
A $10 million grant in a Michigan Business Development Program
A 100 percent Good Jobs for Michigan Withholding Tax Capture for up to 10 years valued at up to $99 million
A 100 percent State Essential Services Assessment Exemption for up to 15 years valued at up to $13.4 million for the Jefferson North Assembly Plant
A 100 percent State Essential Services Assessment Exemption for up to 15 years valued at up to $18 million for the Mack Engine Plants
According to the city, construction on the plant is expected to start this summer.
Detroit residents and UAW members will have an exclusive, four-week window to apply for jobs at the new plants. Though FCA isn’t hiring yet, prospective applicants will eventually be able to apply through the city’s Detroit at Work program. Those who fill out a form now will receive a text alert when the application process begins.
Not everyone is pleased with the outcome of the deal, objecting to the sizable city and state handouts, and other issues.
There’s often a great deal of urgency with developments like this. City officials are afraid to have the project fall through and will make unfavorable deals in order to ensure it happens.
At a meeting of the Economic Development Corporation earlier this month, one of the members equated the deal to a “shakedown.” The body controlled some of the land needed for the transfer, and ultimately voted 7-2 to approve it, but there was clearly loud dissent.
A big winner of the FCA plant is the Moroun-owned Crown Enterprises, which sold an 82-acre parking lot to the city for $43.5 million. Crown bought the property for $10 million in 2016.
It also got 117 acres elsewhere in the city, much of it in southwest Detroit. The Moroun owns the Ambassador Bridge international crossing, which exits in Mexicantown, and many in southwest feel they’ve been mistreated by the family over the years.
“For decades, Matty Moroun and his businesses have been the worst neighbors in southwest Detroit, polluting our communities, stealing public land, and letting their properties crumble and turn into nuisances,” U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib told the Detroit Free Press.
Others who got money or swapped land include DTE Energy Co., Hantz Farms, and the Great Lakes Water Authority.
Some critics cite the lack of guarantees that Detroiters will get jobs at the new plants.
Councilmember Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, one of the “no” votes on City Council, said, “I cannot commit to something that does not guarantee you 100 percent or any percent of jobs. I appreciate the prioritization and opportunity for Detroiters to apply. But so often, it becomes a racialized issue or a class issue and we’re told over and over again ‘Well, there just aren’t enough Detroiters.’”
People have also noted that the negotiations for community benefits were hastily done. One of the other “no” votes, Councilmember Mary Sheffield, said that the land swap deals were made after the CBA was negotiated. Had residents known that the city would pay out millions of dollars to these companies, it might have negotiated differently.
There are also concerns about environmental mitigation, as the new plant will generate more pollution in the area.
There have also been a few curious elements about the land swaps and purchases.
The Metro Times reported that one billionaire developer, Anthony Soave, bought parcels essential to the FCA deal just a month before the announcement. The parcels were former dump sites for contaminated waste and cost just $60,000.
Soave’s purchase will pay off—big time. In exchange for the two contaminated parcels (5.3 acres), which would be used as parking lots for the assembly plant, the tentative deal calls for Soave to receive 72 parcels (9.5 acres) in the area of Van Dyke Street and Lynch Road for a new development.
The state of Michigan wasn’t exactly transparent in its handling of the deal, either. It kept the details of its incentive package secret until Tuesday’s vote. Crain’s Detroit Business notes that that the vote from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to approve the $223.5 million package passed “without any substantial questions or scrutiny from the board of business executives.”
What would Detroit look like if one of these had been built?
Jacob Berman is really into transit systems. Even though he has a day job, in his free time the New York City artist researches and designs maps of transit systems, both of the past and those that never came to be, which he sells on his website.
Berman says the idea for the maps came when he was stuck in a terrible traffic jam in Los Angeles. “I asked myself, ‘Why cant I just take the stupid train to work?’ And then I went down this rabbit hole of mass transit history that continues to this day.”
While the maps span the entire country (and even fictional universes like Lord of the Rings), many are from Detroit.
Berman travels a lot for work, including to Detroit, and says he’s been interested in the Motor City for a long time. The Detroit transit “what-ifs” are many. “There’s a lot of failed plans that you can dig into because, since World War II, the local political situation in Detroit has been really complicated,” he says. “Everyone knows the suburbs and city should get along better, but instead they’re constantly at odds.”
He points to the 1913 inter-urban light rail network, which Detroit would “kill to have today,” he says. If it were still around, you’d be able to take a train all the way from Detroit to Flint or Toledo.
It’s hard to believe, but the one that came closest to passing was the 1918 subway plan (see above). In what Berman calls “one of the great cosmic ironies,” Mayor James Couzens, formerly a Ford executive, vetoed a subway plan approved by the City Council under the justification that it should be a public system, instead of owned by Detroit United Railway. The City Council was one vote shy of overriding the veto.
Later, Couzens did install municipal street railways. By 1950, the streetcars would extend along all major arteries of the city. By the end of the decade, they were dismantled.
The 1958 monorail system proposed by the Detroit Rapid Transit Commission was, Berman says, shelved in favor of freeway construction. Of course, the Detroit People Mover was built downtown in the 1980s but has never had many riders.
Another proposed subway system from 1974 never gained much traction at all, and it’s not hard to see why. The impractical plan calls for a line to run from Metro Airport, through the city, all the way north to Pontiac.
Today, sadly, the Regional Transit System which failed a millage vote during the 2016 election is now also a “hypothetical” system. It’s failed to get jumpstarted since.
Parts of I-94 between the Lodge and I-75 are closed off completely—that freeway is probably best avoided. There are some lane closures on I-75 between Eight Mile Road and I-94. The Lodge has some lane closures as well from Tireman Avenue to Mack Avenue, but delays shouldn’t be much longer than normal.
If you’re in the city and going downtown, we recommend not using a car at all because parking will be tough. MoGo bikes, the QLine, the People Mover, SMART, and DDOT buses are all great choices. To note: DDOT will be running on a Sunday schedule on the holiday Monday.
Also, DDOT and SMART recently instituted a new fare system that allows riders to purchase four-hour and day passes that eliminate transfer fees.
Detroit’s annual electronic music festival takes place downtown this weekend at Hart Plaza. The jam-packed lineup starts at 2 p.m. on Saturday and runs through Monday night. Hart Plaza is gated off for the event, but the Riverwalk can still be accessed through the areas around it.
Tickets and schedules for the music festival can be found here. Many say the late-night after parties are the real attraction. Last year, The Metro Times published a cover story on the history of techno in Detroit, and the Neighborhoods has a playlist from techno legend Kevin Saunderson to get you through the weekend.
Parades to commemorate Memorial Day will be held throughout the metro Detroit area, including Dearborn, Ferndale, Royal Oak, and many more.
Greenfield Village has their annual Civil War Remembrance event all weekend. This year, they have new artifacts and presentations to tell the stories of the era.
Explore the city and beyond
Staying in the city this weekend? Create your own cultural or architectural tour. Our pocket guide includes museums, galleries, and parks to visit as the days get warmer. The Secret Detroit map—and book—includes plenty of places off the beaten path. And if you’re wondering about the many buildings downtown, we have an Architectural walking tour map for that.
Of course, there are plenty of places to take the kids in and around the Motor City, including Mt. Elliott Park, the Henry Ford, and Eastern Market.
Belle Isle is a hot spot for visitors so be prepared. While the west end of the island is loaded with Grand Prix construction, the east end is open for visitors to explore the beach, lighthouse, Conservatory, and Great Lakes Museum.
Anonymous sources said it would house a ‘Detroit innovation center’
Ever since Wayne County scrapped its plans mid-construction to build a $520 million jail on Gratiot Avenue, the ‘fail jail,’ as it’s known locally, has been a black eye for the city.
Rock Ventures bought the half-finished building, and there’s been constant speculation about what owner Dan Gilbert would build there. For a time, it seemed like he might attract an MLS team to Detroit and construct a stadium. Then there were plans for a $533 million mixed-use development.
Now the latest speculation is that Gilbert is in talks with Stephen Ross and the University of Michigan to build a ‘Detroit innovation center,’ Crain’s Detroit Business reports. Anonymous sources told Crain’s that the building would be a kind of research and development facility for manufacturing. No other details were released.
The site itself is 15 acres and the half-finished jail was demolished summer 2018.
The article points to other clues suggesting this kind of development.
For U-M, the Gratiot site is envisioned to mirror Cornell University’s Cornell Tech urban campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City, according to two sources familiar with the plans. Ross’ real estate development firm, Related Cos., was one of the developers that constructed Cornell Tech’s first residential building on Roosevelt Island, a narrow island in New York’s East River nestled between Manhattan Island and the Queens borough.
A native of Detroit who has donated more than $300 million of his wealth to UM, Ross has expressed past interest in doing a real estate project in the city.
President Mark Schlissel has also said he wants U-M to be more active in Detroit, and Ross was spotted in the city recently.
So far it’s all speculation, but if true, it certainly would be an intriguing development.
Of the 1,742 Michigan Historical Markers, 146 are located in Detroit—by far the most of any city in the state. With such important events and places as “Fort Wayne” and “Birthplace of Ford Automobile” commemorated with plaques, it’s not too surprising to learn that, at least by this unofficial statistical method, Detroit is the most important city to Michigan’s history.
The Michigan Historical Markers program began in 1955 and new plaques are dedicated every year. That’s because the markers matter: They educate residents about the state and often help preserve buildings and sites.
Ultimately, they contribute to creating a place’s identity, says Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan History Center, which administers the program. “We talk a lot about creating a sense of place and sense of community—this is a small way we build that.”
According to Clark, almost all markers are sponsored by individuals or community groups.
There’s so many markers in Detroit, that many get less recognition than they should. We worked with the center and the Michigan Historic Commission, which approves and drafts the markers, to identify 13 of the city’s lesser-known ones.
The Gregorian Revival building comes with plans for 145 apartment units and 5,000 square feet of commercial space
Just north of the Fisher Building in New Center, the former WJBK-TV Studios building is for sale. The 30,000-square-foot, all-brick building is listed through O’Connor Real Estate for $3.5 million.
The former studio on 2nd Avenue is notable for several reasons. Built in 1956 in the Georgian Revival style, there’s a limestone-trimmed portico at the front entrance, and a frieze and cornice at the top of the two-story building. The only building designed in Detroit by John L. Volk, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.
WJBK broadcast shows there for about 15 years, then sold it to a Detroit public television station, which left in 2009.
Ottawa-based Halcor bought the property in 2014. The company then made plans to develop the building and site, adding more height to the original building as well as constructing several new ones. In total, the proposal called for 145 residential units and 5,000 square feet of commercial space.
Purchase of the property comes with development plans.
Courtesy of Halcor
Rendering of development plans
As to why the company has decided to sell, Halcor, which has several projects ongoing in the city, told Curbed Detroit that, “Given the time frame of this specific project, [we have decided] to deploy the capital on other projects.”
A lot is happening in New Center at the moment, including the near completion of The Boulevard, a major mixed-use apartment building by The Platform.
This eclectic home has tons of antiques and Art Deco details
Lots of homes have been listing and selling in the Live6 area of late. Few have quite as much character as this one.
The aesthetics of this 1,700-square-foot, three-bedroom Martin Park Tudor are not for everybody, but we’re sure plenty of people will appreciate the eclectic antiques and Art Deco details.
You can get a hint of this style by the stone walkway and aqua paint job on the stucco between the exposed wood framework. The front door also has some amazing metal hardware and a stained-glass window.
Inside, there’s too many interesting details to describe—steam-punk light fixtures, an anchor mosaic made of tiles, maze-like wallpaper, a bathroom with four kinds of tile patterns, to name just a few. What’s more, all the furnishings and decorations come with the purchase of the home.
There’s also a great sun room that leads to a spacious backyard and detached, two-car garage.
It’s also worth noting that the home got some recent upgrades, including a new roof, washing/dryer, and updated electrical.
It took four days to move the 600-ton building one block
Moving a building is an amazing feat of engineering. Wayne State University captured the multi-day journey of the David Mackenzie House is an impressive time-lapse video which was shared on Show Me Detroit Tours’s Facebook page.
The Mackenzie House is a historic Queen Anne built in the late 1800s and owned by Wayne State University. In order to accommodate construction of the university’s new $65 million Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex while also preserving the house, it had to be moved about a city block at a cost of $750,000.
On the day of the move, The Detroit News wrote, “The house is being moved on four layers of beams sitting on hydraulic-powered dollies. … A power pack pumps hydraulic fluid through lines into 16 to 18 jacks to lift the structure. The jacks are placed in specific locations accounting for heavier parts of the building.”
MACKENZIE HOUSE MOVE 2019
Wayne State University’s historic David Mackenzie House has been moved from its location on Cass Avenue next to the Hillberry Theater in Midtown Detroit one block away the northeast corner of Forest Avenue at Second Boulevard.
This time-lapse video documents the March 29 - April 4 move that was handled by Buffalo, N.Y.-based International Chimney Corp., the same firm that in 1997 moved the historic Gem Theatre in Downtown to make way for Comerica Park.
The move of the house was needed to make room for the new $65 million Hilberry Gateway Performance Complex that will include the Gretchen Valade Jazz Center.
The future use of the house has not yet been determined and is being considered within the larger context of the university’s master plan.
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The new plan will be submitted to the DDA for approval on May 22
Olympia Development and the Ilitch family that runs it have faced a growing chorus of criticism about its lack of development around District Detroit.
Perhaps they’ve been listening.
The company says it’s agreed to new terms with the city of Detroit about redevelopment of the Eddystone Hotel, and will submit a proposed amendment to its original agreement to the Downtown Development Authority on May 22.
When Little Caesars Arena was announced and received $300 million in public subsidies, in turn, Olympia Development guaranteed millions of dollars in spinoff development.
One of those promises was about the Eddystone Hotel, an abandoned hotel on Woodward Avenue built in 1924. Plans called for the 13-story building to be converted into 96 apartment units, 20 percent of which would be designated as “affordable.”
But the company missed its deadline to begin work on the building in August 2018. It also demolished its larger neighbor, the Hotel Park Avenue, in 2015. The city of Detroit was considering legal action and other options, but news about the building went silent until recently.
According to a release by Olympia Development, the amendment will “provide a letter of credit or performance bond to ensure the project meets certain milestones within specific timelines and that the project is completed.”
Kraemer Design Group has been selected as architect for the project.
Olympia has declined to release other details of the new agreement, telling Curbed Detroit, “We look forward to offering more details about Eddystone redevelopment, including the timeline, after the DDA board has had the opportunity to consider our proposed amendment.”