“Desolation.” “Moribund.” “Shabby.” “Mostly empty.” “Once-vacant.” “Mostly vacant.” “Seldom-used.” “Oblivion.” From the descriptions in this Free Press article earlier in February, you’d think we were in the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscape of a Cormac McCarthy novel, not a downtown Detroit district just a few years ago.
Development writer John Gallagher’s article about Capitol Park development highlights a 10-year planning process that combined private, public and nonprofit funds to rehab buildings, do historic preservation and attract a bunch of businesses to new storefronts around the mini-park downtown. Gallagher makes the case that a strong, strategic vision shared by the different partners multiplied the impact of the individual building projects.
But in the process, the article washes over a neighborhood’s history, echoing the cliched and erosive blank-slate narrative that frustrates long-time residents.
People lived there
The article talks about the new upscale market, the new pastry shop, the new coffee shop, the new nail salon and the new pet boutique. There’s a for-profit music academy and a design center for the auto supplier LEAR. That’s definitely more storefronts filled than few years ago, and the public space is pretty lively during peak hours.
But fewer businesses isn’t the same as empty, nor the only way to gauge a neighborhood’s value. A couple spots like Urban Bean have been open for awhile, and two other businesses closed in the last few years due to building issues. More to the point, people lived in the so-called “moribund” area. More than 100 tenants in apartments around the park were displaced to make way for the latest round of development.
Affordable housing -> ‘The Albert’
The Free Press article briefly mentions the backstory of The Albert, the name coined for the Albert Kahn-designed building at 1214 Griswold that was formerly called the Griswold Apartments. In 2013, the building was sold to Birmingham-based partners Todd Sachse and Richard Broder. Residents — mostly black, low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities — were told they’d have to leave their apartments that were subsidized with housing assistance vouchers. A number of the tenants of the 127-unit building had been living there for a decade or more.
“I have no idea where I’m going, and I am too crippled to get on a bus and go look for a place,” Jacqueline McCoy, 65 at the time, told Deadline Detroit. “We thought this was our home. The rug has been pulled out from under us.”
The building was renovated and turned into market-rate apartments described as similar to “a five-star hotel” by a questionable promo video. The ground floor tenants include Bad Luck Bar, an experimental cocktail bar that opened with a buzzy $80 drink on the menu.
An end to downtown loft living
In 2010, a spacious Clark Lofts apartment could be rented for $1,000. For more than a decade, the 15 units were rented to hairdressers, strippers, artists, aerobics instructors, students and Detroiters of all stripes, according to a Free Press report last year. Chinese investment group DDI purchased the occupied building north of the park at 35 W. Grand River in 2013. Residents were forced out when their leases expired and DDI sold the 15-unit building to Gilbert in 2015.
The building was rehabbed, renamed 35W and broken into smaller units that reportedly rent for more than double the price and less than half the space.
“We did empty it before the sale as it would be an easier sale without tenants,” a DDI spokesman told the Free Press.
Artists pushed out
For years, the loft space at 1217 Griswold (on the west side of the park) was home to an informal arts community, the kind of place where residents screen-printed, built an indoor skate ramp and hosted underground techno shows. It was the ad-hoc incubator for Movement Festival producers Paxahau, whose founders met in the lofts.
Bedrock, Dan Gilbert’s real estate company, purchased the building in 2013. In 2014, the residents — about two dozen — got 30-day eviction notices that cited a fire marshall’s safety concerns like no functioning sprinkler system, as well as $2,000 relocation stipends. Now called the Malcomson, the building holds a nail salon and Eatori Market, as well as renovated apartments. The leasing site references musicians and artists who “breathe life into the area.”
Community in the park
Drew Roberts, who was evicted from the 1217 Griswold lofts and now lives in Virginia Park, objected to the Free Press’ description of the earlier incarnation of his former neighborhood.
“It was definitely a robust and vibrant community,” he told Detour. “It’s not fair to describe things as they were as desolate.”
His memories of Capitol Park: a communal backyard for nearby residents, who would socialize with tenants from other buildings, cook out on portable grills and skate. (Roberts is this writer’s soccer teammate.)
“It was a combination of longtime Detroit residents who were seniors and living in assisted housing and young artists who aren’t necessarily of means,” he said.
The art pitch
In a 2013 planning document co-created by Gilbert’s Rock Ventures, Capitol Park was “envisioned to be the center of a new arts district,” with “a venue for emerging artists to display or perform their work” and a home for “the Passenger Project, a joint project of Cranbrook Academy and the College of Creative Studies that will include artists’ studios and a student gallery.”
One artist who was evicted from the 1217 building told Metro Times in 2014 the arts district plan was “super ironic,” and others residents noted that building it required disintegrating a DIY arts community’s homes, studios and performance space.
The Passenger Project didn’t come to fruition, though CCS regularly holds events at the LEAR Innovation Center. Neither did the galleries or artist studios. Earlier this year, Bedrock Chairman Jim Ketai described Capitol Park to Crain’s as a hot destination for people who want to place retail in the city, emphasizing the “great retail and restaurants coming into Capitol Park.” The comments came in an article about Bedrock’s purchase of another property in the district, the Herman and Ben Marks Furs building at 1211 Griswold.
No matter the intention, branding Capitol Park as an arts district occured hand-in-hand with increased investment, rising rents and gentrification, and resulted in an area teeming with apartments unaffordable to the majority of Detroiters, coffee shops and eateries. Bedrock didn’t immediately provide answers to questions about changes to the plans for art venues or its development in the area.
More questions than answers in the changing downtown
The 2013 downtown planning document described Capitol Park as a place that “feels lonely,” and under an “issues” section says “very little happens … except skateboarding,” and “benches, chairs and tables are used primarily by the homeless.” The Free Press article characterizes Capitol Park of the past as “unsightly and littered” and notes that pre-2008 it was most known as a bus turnaround spot.
Those descriptions of non-money-making activities prompt the question: is there room for low-income, primarily black Detroiters in the new downtown? A number of low-income apartments in the greater downtown area are at risk due to expiring tax credits, and the sudden eviction of tenants from affordable housing at the Park Avenue House near the Little Caesars Arena recently sparked outcry and city intervention.
Alan Mallach, an urban scholar and senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, told Bridge the changes in downtown underscore the narrative marketed to outsiders that Detroit is “a clean slate”:
This is deeply offensive, and contributes to the sense that there are people using Detroit in a way that’s not in the interest of the majority of its residents. Detroit is 80 percent African-American. If you walk around Campus Martius, the faces you see are 80 percent white. The people moving into the city are more likely to be white. The people moving out are more likely to be black. And who is making the big decisions about Detroit? [Mayor] Mike Duggan, Dan Gilbert … Race is the subtext for all these issues.
There’s no denying that many of the buildings in Capitol Park, a historic district, were in dire need of pricey renovations — thanks in part to real estate speculators letting property decay with little investment. Revitalization in the district, led by Bedrock, developer Richard Karp and others, is an impressive achievement on some measures. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum, and any resurgence in the city that hinges on displacement should be examined more closely.
Roberts acknowledged that rising rents in an urban core are almost a natural occurrence, and the cheap, hazard-ridden 1217 Griswold lofts are from a downtown era that’s ended. (Though, sidenote, NYC actually has a law that protects some tenants living in illegal lofts from displacement.)
“I’m pretty ambivalent to the fact that we got kicked out and now the place is expensive as hell,” Roberts said, but, “in telling the eventual tale of development and gentrification, it’s important to remember that there were people existing in a community who had a way of life before development took place.”