Labor of Love: Behind the most accessible building...

Labor of Love: Behind the most accessible building in Detroit

How Allied Media Projects' new headquarters, The Love Building, was designed with everyone in mind

rending of love building, new home for allied media projects

Rendering of the Love Building. Courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

Accessibility is rarely a prioritized feature of building design. Most developers will do the bare minimum to not be in violation of the American with Disabilities Act. Some will even disregard the needs of those with mobility challenges

But for the Love Building, accessibility will be the centerpiece.

The four-story brick structure on Grand River Avenue just past 14th Street is being redeveloped into the new headquarters for Allied Media Projects (AMP), the Detroit-based nonprofit which supports minority and justice-focused media organizations. 

“Accessibility and Universal Design are at the heart of this project,” says Jenny Lee, executive director of Allied Media Projects. 

AMP worked with Oakland, California–based architecture firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces — which has a stated goal of ending mass incarceration and structural inequity — to design a building that goes beyond the minimal standards mandated by the ADA. Instead the team embraced Universal Design, a philosophy that strives to make the built environment usable by as many people as possible, whatever their limitations might be. 

When finished, it may be the most accessible building in Detroit.

Even though there’s already one in the back, a whole new elevator shaft will be constructed at the front entrance to create an entryway that everyone can use. 

There will be a multi-purpose gathering space that can accommodate 180 guests and open to an outdoor seating area. On the first floor, stairs were removed and the floor leveled. The walls, floors, and railings will have tactile surfaces as cues for the visually impaired. 

love building detroit allied media projects
The Love Building. Courtesy Designing Justice + Designing Spaces

Detroit Disability Power, a membership organization which advocates for the local disabled community, will be a tenant in the building and consulted on the project from the beginning. 

“There are very few accessible meeting places in Detroit,” says Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power. “It’s a constant challenge for people with disabilities involved in social movements to be able to get to that meeting in the church basement or the second floor of whatever free space we were able to secure.” 

These features matter because the building expects to have a lot of traffic. It’ll have offices for a slew of other mission-aligned organizations, including the Detroit Justice Center, Detroit Narrative Agency and Detroit Community Technology Project — all of whom serve underprivileged communities.

That also means expanding the concept of accessibility beyond mobility limitations to make it truly universal. There will be an over 500-square-foot childcare and lactation room, a prayer/meditation room, gender-neutral bathrooms and private ADA booths. 

All of these features are not just in service to their tenants. “Our goal is to make our project a counterweight to forces of gentrification and inequitable development,” Lee says.

That’s a tougher narrative to sell given the way AMP bought the building. Previously, 4731 Grand River was mostly affordable studio space for 31 artists. After buying the building for $1 million last year, AMP evicted the tenants in what seemed like a classic case of gentrification.

But the gentrification label is rarely clear-cut. Rent was as low as it was because the building needed investment — it had a leaky roof, poor ventilation, and an outdated electrical system. And AMP was being priced out of its own office in the Cass Corridor and looking for a way to ensure long-term stability. 

If anything, the painful irony of a progressive organization evicting tenants has clarified AMP’s vision. “We want this place to be of deep value to not just the people inside, but also guests and the surrounding residents,” Lee says.

AMP is voluntarily entering into a community benefits agreement with residents of the Core City neighborhood, and is currently holding meetings with members of a Neighborhood Advisory Council to understand residents’ needs and challenges, and how the building might be made available to them. One simple example Lee offered was use of the community space for free or reduced rent. 

Some of the tenants offer services that could directly benefit residents as well. Amanda Alexander, executive director of the non-profit law firm Detroit Justice Center, says her organization is committed to supporting the neighborhood. “We’ve been thinking long and hard about how the Detroit Justice Center can be responsive to community needs,” Alexander said.

That could include drop-in legal support, “know your rights” workshops, and developing a group of resident activists who can help returning citizens or neighbors avoid foreclosure, to name a few possibilities.

The building will also have a cafe, Paradise Natural Foods, and owner Nezaa Bandele is taking a similar approach. “I run a for-profit business, but it’s rooted in community,” Bandele says. “I see all kinds of ways we could meet the community wherever they are.” 

She’s considering a variety of offerings, like dishes at lower price points, sponsorships for food giveaways, and partnering with urban farms to host mini-markets. 

Accessibility, however, has a cost. So do some of the other high-design features planned for the building, like skylights, solar panels, a sedum roof, and solar glazing. Not to mention all the other upgrades and the complete redesign that will require gutting the entire building.

AMP estimates that the redevelopment will total $10 million, including the purchase price. It’s already taken out a $2 million mortgage and is working with community development financial institution IFF on the rest of the financing. Lee said AMP is not pursuing any public funding — like historic tax credits or state loans — for the project. 

If all goes well, she expects Love Building to open by the end of 2021.

For all the tenants and their approximately 75 staff, that day can’t come soon enough. “I’m excited to create a culture where people can come in and really feel like their whole self is respected and celebrated,” Cosma says. “That’s good for our staff and our office. But it includes everyone who will use the building.”

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.