Developer Philip Kafka keeps building in Core City...

Developer Philip Kafka keeps building in Core City, from courtyards to the Caterpillar

The pandemic has slowed Detroit construction, but things are still moving along on this corner.

construction at quonset hut in core city neighborhood of detroit

Construction on an apartment building under development in Core City, Detroit. Credit: Chris Miele

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused delays, alterations and cancellations of developments across Detroit. But in the Core City neighborhood, construction is moving along at a steady pace. 

Over the past few years, Philip Kafka, owner of the development firm Prince Concepts, has completed several notable projects near the intersection of Warren and Grand River Avenues — including the 10 residential quonset huts called True North and the redevelopment of a former bank that now holds offices and businesses like Ochre, a cafe.

It seemed, however, that the pandemic would hamper Kafka’s business as well. In August, he and his partners at Top Young Hospitality closed the restaurant Magnet — which resided in another Kafka building — and dissolved the partnership. Top Young also owned the Thai-inspired Takoi on Michigan Avenue. 

But Kafka said that decision allows him to instead focus on development projects, where his work has drawn national attention. His buildings, designed by architects Edwin Chan and Ishtiaq Rafiuddin, have won design awards.

“I’m no longer going to own restaurants,” he said. “I’m a developer and that’s what I want to do. That’s the work I’m proudest of.” 

5K building in Core City. Credit: Chris Miele

Walk around some of Kafka’s properties, and you’ll see he is indeed building. Construction is nearly complete at a former supermarket, now called the 5K Building, on the intersection’s northeast corner. Plant-delivery company Bloomscape, which just closed on a $15 million investment round, is set to move its offices there at the beginning of November. 

Like all Kafka projects, the building has some eye-catching details, including several interior courtyards that will be accessible to the public. Inside the narrow shafts — which are interspersed with landscaping and clad in corrugated steel to reflect the site’s industrial look — the old terrazzo floor was carefully removed and cut into tiles and benches. 

“This is the kind of project that can materially change the neighborhood,” Kafka says. “It’ll bring in dollars from across the country and world.”

‘The Caterpillar’ puts another twist on Kafka’s distinctive quonset huts

Near the southern edge of the triangle formed by Grand River, Warren and Buchanan Street â€” Kafka’s footprint in Core City â€” another, larger quonset hut is nearing completion. Called the Caterpillar, this steel semi-circle will be subdivided along its length (imagine a sushi roll) into eight apartments ranging from 700 to 1,300 square feet. Each will have an open floor plan, with a central island and no enclosed bedrooms.

The Caterpillar again emphasizes architectural themes important to Kafka. “I want the buildings to be generous with space and light,” he says. 

Windows sit near the top of the 23-foot ceilings, which kept the rooms bright even on the gray October day we visited. One long deck will wrap around the entire building looking out onto 100 trees. 

The Caterpillar building. Credit: Chris Miele

A developer’s case for ‘inspired,’ not affordable, housing

Kafka’s goal is not to build affordable housing. It’s not about building luxury housing, either. He calls it “inspired” housing. 

“I don’t want people that are looking for a luxury lifestyle because that person is going to alienate the residents of this neighborhood,” he says. “Detroit has a beautiful, wide-open feeling, and landscaping communicates that possibility.”

The units will, however, rent at luxury rates: between $1,350 to $2,500 per month. That’s not affordable to nearby residents or many Detroiters — the median family income in the census tract is estimated at $28,029. Kafka has been accused of gentrifying the area, especially after he evicted commercial tenant Underdog Boxing Gym, owned by Sultan Harper Bay, in 2019.

In recent history, the stretch of Grand River about a mile up from Woodbridge — with its stately and historic Victorians — has lots of vacancy. In the triangle footprint where Kafka is building, the Detroit Land Bank Authority owns nearly 50% of the parcels. Only six homes are occupied, according to Kafka. “Accusations of gentrification just roll off me because they’re grateful someone is doing something here,” he says.

On the other side of the city block, Kafka is working on his biggest project yet with The Ferlito Group, a Detroit-based firm that’s behind the Selden Building. Together, they’ll build 17 duplexes around the street’s old growth trees on 15th Street. Though still in the design phase, current drawings call for modern, geometrical buildings inspired by the Moriyama House outside Tokyo. 

It’ll be the first project as part of an agreement with the Detroit Land Bank which gives Kafka the option to purchase 39 lots in the area. He and Ferlito hope to break ground in the spring. 

Work has always been steady in Core City since Kafka began building True North in 2016. That continues to be true even during a pandemic. 

Editors note: The original post wrote that Underdog Boxing Gym was a “longtime” tenant. But the gym only began operating there after Philip Kafka renovated it.

Aaron Mondry is the editor of The Dig and a reporter who covers development, housing, architecture, real estate and land use in Detroit. He was previously the editor of Curbed Detroit.