HamiltonAnderson rendering of the North End Landing development looking west from Delores Bennett Park. Courtesy photo
On March 1, the developers of a Detroit housing project were prepared — maybe even excited — to present their plans at a virtual meeting with residents of the Lower North End Block Club. One by one, they shared renderings and visions for the multi-block development, in the works for years, speaking about how it would positively transform the neighborhood.
By all accounts, they weren’t expecting what came next: swift and widespread criticism from residents who later mounted a petition to kill the project.
North End Landing, a development first reported by Detour, would bring 180 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments in townhomes spread out over several blocks and two multifamily buildings at John R and Smith Streets in the North End. The local community development financial institution Vanguard CDC had been trying to get the project off the ground since at least 2015.
Vanguard only really saw forward momentum after partnering with the for-profit developer Avanath Capital Management, which is based in Irvine, Calif., and one of the largest African American-owned real estate firms in the United States. Its chairman and CEO, Daryl Carter, enlisted RMC Development, another Black-owned real estate company led by Ronald McDonald, to join them on the development. (The lead architecture firm, HamiltonAnderson Associates in Detroit, is also Black-owned.)
At the digital meeting, the team portrayed the new rental housing as a much-needed boost of investment and infill in a neighborhood that’s seen little of either over the past few decades. In accordance with the city’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance, 20% of the units would rent for 80% of the area median income, or around $700-800 per month, and one whole apartment building would be reserved for seniors.
The developers were also going to contribute up to $3,000 for external repairs to any home adjacent to or within the development’s footprint, and fund improvements to the nearby Delores Bennett Park.
Carter and McDonald, both born and raised in Detroit, were excited to build something in their hometown after becoming successful developers elsewhere. In recent years, Avanath had purchased two affordable housing properties from Vanguard, so they were familiar with the North End as well.
After the 30-minute presentation ended, the developers opened it up to questions from residents. It wasn’t received with the same enthusiasm.
Those on the call almost universally expressed their frustration with the lack of community engagement. The development in its current form had been in the works for around two years, but this was the first time most of the people in the neighborhood had heard about it.
“We had invited [Vanguard] to block club meetings for years,” Lynette Roberson, president of the Lower North End Block Club, told Detour Detroit. “Then all of sudden, they asked to be put on agenda, told us their plan and that it’s pretty much a done deal.”
Detroit has seen a rise in development outside of greater downtown for new housing. But even when developers and the community share some common goals, plans are often met with resistance from residents concerned about being left out of changes to the neighborhoods they’ve maintained for decades with little assistance. In the North End, a majority Black neighborhood with a strong culture of arts and community-led efforts that’s seen an influx of new residents and increasing home prices in recent years, those concerns are front and center.
Attendees of the block club meeting raised questions about the scale and design of the project, the potential increase in traffic, the lack of for-sale units, the cost for the market-rate units (which will go for as much as $1,500 per month) and more.
Amidst the frustration, Avanath and Vanguard said they were committed to hearing from the community. “We’re here to listen and will take all your suggestions under advisement,” Carter said on the call. “This is a process we’re going through right now to get feedback,” he added later.
But since that March 1 meeting, few changes have been made to the development and many Lower North End residents are still opposed to the project. The block club circulated a petition that got over 500 signatures in five days, the majority of whom reside just blocks from the development. On April 20, the Land Bank board approved the sale of 26 lots for the project for $398,410, despite almost all the local commenters voicing their opposition. Final approval of the sale still requires a City Council vote.
Points of contention
In a letter submitted to the Land Bank opposing the land sale, the block club noted several issues with the project, such as a conflict with the community’s wishes for an expanded park and additional green space.
But the main objection from residents is that the development is too large and too focused on rentals. Currently there are about 100 mostly owner-occupied single-family homes in the lower North End. This development would flip the ratio of homeowners to renters, they argue, dramatically changing the character of the neighborhood.
“It’s hard for me to imagine that turning our neighborhood into a majority renter community wouldn’t change everything,” said Tyson Gersh, secretary for the block club and executive director of the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, located in the North End. “It’s a very neighborly community. It’s very easy to know every single person here. But renters are not invested in the future of their community in the same way homeowners are.”
Avanath is looking to work with another developer who specializes in single-family construction to potentially add six for-sale homes, but Gersh and others said that’s not nearly enough.
The developers say they are simply returning the North End to its historical density. The neighborhood was at one point populated not just with single-family homes, but many multifamily buildings.
“We’re not building more or something out of scale with what was there,” said Pamela Martin-Turner, president and CEO of Vanguard CDC. “We’re just rebuilding some of what was there, which is how you get to a healthy city.”
(In a separate North End project funded by the Knight Foundation, Vanguard is working on pedestrian-friendly streetscape improvements to East Grand Boulevard.)
They also feel that density is necessary to attract amenities, like grocery stores and restaurants, to the neighborhood. “Communities decline because of a lack of investment and thrive when there is investment,” Carter said.
Too little, too late
Residents are legitimately concerned about the effect North End Landing will have on their neighborhood. But the most common sentiment is disrespect at the lack of resident input.
“Two meetings are not community engagement,” said Electra Fulbright, a founding member of the Historic North End Alliance, an umbrella organization for the North End’s many block clubs. “We’ve been appalled at the lack of dialogue because we believe community engagement is a collaboration of thoughts, ideas, concessions, changes. Not just you telling us what we’re going to do in our community.”
Despite its opposition to North End Landing, the Lower North End Block Club describes itself as pro-development.
“We absolutely want development — it’s needed,” said Cornelius Harris, block club vice president and manager of a techno museum and record label located on East Grand Boulevard. “We’ve written letters of support to other developers. But you shouldn’t put apartment buildings right in the middle of a community of homes.”
In April 2020, the block club put out guidelines for developers working in the neighborhood. It calls for a “transparent, city-led community engagement [process]” and nine goals such as promoting diversity, celebrating the neighborhood’s history and development without displacement. In its letter to the Land Bank, the block club also recognized some of the positive aspects of North End Landing, like the fact that it’s minority-led and beneficial to several long-term residents who are selling their land for the project.
“We’re a really development-friendly block club,” Gersh said. “If you can align with our very reasonable guidelines, we can support you. We’d much rather be creating, adding value, building things that serve the community.”
While some issues may be intractable — such as the ratio between for-sale and rental units — residents said no effort was made to resolve them. “Had they come to the table on March 1 and said, ‘We’re gonna stop for a second and hear the community,’ we would have worked with them,” Roberson said.
Martin-Turner said she understands that “people would have preferred if we came to them sooner,” but that doing a lot of public activity prior to securing the land could have driven up the cost, making the development prohibitively expensive. She added that Vanguard has done engagement on this project intermittently over the years, kept some individual residents informed on the progress and has since hired a consultant to improve outreach.
The developers are also going to phase the project over years and use a modular construction method that will keep disruption to a minimum.
Carter said that he’s heard the demand for more for-sale options. While the constraints around construction costs and the expertise of his firm limit their options — Avanath specializes in rental construction and management — they’re going to provide an option to invest in the project at smaller amounts “so residents can invest alongside us and create wealth for their household.”
“I believe this engagement will make for a better product,” Carter said. “We are a long-term investor in this community. These are our neighbors and we care about them.”
At the March 1 meeting, Avanath said it hoped to break ground on one of its multifamily buildings in the fall and begin construction of the modular townhomes in the winter. But Carter told Detour in May that there is no longer a definite timeline on the project and that he’s not sure when it’ll be presented to City Council. “We’re not trying to rush this,” he said.
The block club is currently planning to do everything it can to prevent the development, including staging rallies, attending the City Council meeting en masse to voice their opposition and meeting with council members individually.
It may seem too late for reconciliation, but Martin-Turner remains hopeful. “I believe that our neighbors are rational people of good faith, and if they have continuing concerns, we’ll be able to work those out. Because this is a good thing for the neighborhood and the city.”
This story includes reporting from Detroit Documenter Noah Kincaid. Detroit Documenters is a partnership between Detour, Outlier Media, WDET, City Bureau, CitizenDetroit and the Detroit Free Press that pays residents to attend public meetings and help citizens and news outlets learn more about their city government. Upcoming trainings can be found here; the next one will be held June 8.