Many Detroiters want new development — but they also want impactful, mission-driven projects that address their personal and neighborhoods’ needs. That often doesn’t happen.
But it can: just look at a recent redevelopment in Detroit’s Old Redford neighborhood. Developers of the Obama Building took a unique approach to ensure it would serve residents, and in the process, baked in more community benefits than many projects in the city.
The Obama Building — named for its prominent street-facing mural of Barack and Michelle Obama — is a former bank branch at the northeast intersection of Grand River Avenue and Lahser Road. The 12,855-square-foot building had been abandoned for over a decade before it was bought by The Platform at the Wayne County tax auction in 2015.
Then, aside from installing a new room, not much happened for four-plus years. A combination of financing challenges and patience in determining the programming of the building meant construction didn’t get started until earlier this year.
To figure out how the building should be used, The Platform and project lead Brandon Hodges helped form a Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC), an increasingly common way to have community representation give input for developments in their neighborhoods. NACs are mandated for projects that fall under the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance (when they cost more than $75 million and get subsidies). The Obama Building did not, but The Platform still decided to form one.
“We wanted to make sure that we as the developer were keeping the desires of the community in mind,” Hodges said. “So we created a system that will hold us accountable.”
Composed of four neighborhood representatives and Hodges himself, the group met regularly over the last year and negotiated a series of commitments from The Platform. And they’ll continue to meet for an indefinite period to determine programming for the building.
The four second-story residential units will all be more affordable than what’s traditionally expected of developments. Rental rates have been set for those making between 60-75% of the area median income, or around $35,000-$40,000 for a two-person household.
The two studios will go for $775-$825 per month, the one-bedroom apartment for $875, and the 1,208-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment for $1,200. The latter has been rented out by a mother and son who are moving in at the end of the week. Hodges said they’ve gotten a lot of inquiries for the other three units, which are currently ready for occupancy.
The Obama Building will have eight ground-floor commercial spaces. And the NAC will have to approve any prospective tenant — perhaps an unprecedented authority for a privately negotiated benefits agreement in the city. The committee is giving precedence to “health and wellness”-themed businesses.
The building’s floor plan is unique as well. The space at the angular and arched front entrance has been specced for a restaurant. The other seven are connected by an interior hallway. Four will have a street-facing storefront, and the other three lead to a retail corridor with skylights that will be converted into a strolling art gallery. The namesake mural of the Obamas was moved here from above the front entrance and touched up by artist Chazz Miller, who’s going to fill the space with art.
The Platform has also pre-renovated the retail spaces by taking care of all the electrical and HVAC to make it as easy as possible for occupancy. Hodges said they made the decision to “plug and play” the spaces prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it makes even more sense now considering the financial struggles of small businesses. “We thought it was important to take away the bigger-cost items that can be prohibitive for retailers to open up,” Hodges said.
And if there are any excess cash flows after monthly loans are paid, the NAC will get to decide how to allocate it to community-facing programs. “The development feels more like a nonprofit venture, but it has all the discipline and rigor of a for-profit,” Hodges said.
This approach has won over locals. Dr. Karla Miller, a lifelong Detroiter and the executive director of the local nonprofit Changing Lives and Staying Sober, was skeptical when the vacant structure was bought by The Platform, a well-funded development firm that owns The Fisher Building.
“Early on I expressed my concerns to Brandon [Hodges] about displacement,” she said, referencing fears that the developer’s move into the neighborhood could price out existing residents.
But her tune changed after seeing the consistent community engagement and eventually becoming a member of the NAC herself. “The Platform has done a really good job of being inclusive to business owners and the residents that are already here,” she said. “This building is going to be an incredible asset for this area.”
The other challenge for the Obama was financing. The entire renovation cost $3.6 million, but was only finalized after The Platform got a $750,000 Community Revitalization Program grant from the state and a $300,000 grant from the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund. It’s only the second project to get financing from the $59 million fund to help develop projects in 10 neighborhoods across Detroit.
The rest of the capital stack came from a $1.23 million loan from Horizon Bank and a $750,000 investment from the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, which has helped fund projects in nearby Brightmoor (The Platform CEO Peter Cummings is married to Fisher Foundation trustee Julie Fisher Cummings).
The Obama Building is not the biggest or most substantial development in Detroit. But its developers have taken an original path for a project aiming to serve Detroiters — one worth watching.