Remembering Asian Village, a Detroit development p...

Remembering Asian Village, a Detroit development project that crashed and burned

new $50 million development called Asian Village will bring a Japanese and Korean food hall run by One World Market to Novi, along with housing, restaurants, office space and even a Japanese garden situated serenely upon a four-acre lake. The new Asian Village is big news for Metro Detroit’s Asian community and everybody who fantasizes about buying real ramen noodles on a regular basis.

But we couldn’t help but get nostalgic for Detroit’s other Asian Village — an early New Detroit success story that ultimately crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. It’s a tale of miso-fueled egos, corruption busts and $30 glasses of whiskey. Your fortune cookie today promises a spicy hot plate of nostalgia for the Asian Village of yore.

Back in the mid-aughts, there was so much hype for Asian Village, a destination development designed to unite Metro Detroit’s 250,000+ strong Asian community. Some boosters even thought it could be the start to a new Chinatown district.  Co-founders Dominic Pangbornand Andrew Park boasted Asian Village would someday spur ethnic-centered developments up and down the six-mile Riverwalk. The three restaurants included a gourmet tea and coffee shop, an elegant Asian-fusion restaurant and a marketplace featuring inspired takes on street food. Big-shot consultants were brought in, including famed Japanese restaurateur Takashi Yagihashi, to help AV’s fine dining concept, Fusia, become the next Tribute. The Detroit of 2007 was not known for fancy or creative eating so this was a BIG DEAL — evidence of a comeback!

After some splashy opening parties, trouble quickly set in at AV. The owners had splurged on those chichi consultants, pricey digs and an insane state-of-the-art kitchen for Fusia. “It was the most high-end kitchen equipment in the country and no one knew what to do with it,” remembers Will Branch, who cooked at Fusia (Detour note: Branch is also editor Ashley’s fiancé). They also hosted a highly-unusual soft opening for three weeks, serving up hundreds of Waygu and uni dishes for the price of free. And despite earning a four-star review from the News, it was common for Fusia to serve less than 100 covers on Saturday night. One frequent visitor was then-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and members of his entourage, who would come back into the kitchen and ask the chefs to cook up an off-menu request: chicken fried rice.

As the bills mounted, AV made the fine dining restaurant more casual, shuttered the tea shop and abandoned the marketplace. Thousands of square feet of prime location went unused. They pivoted to hosting nightclub events, where one guest threw up in the waterfall and ruined the water circulation system. Nevertheless, the upscale lounge proved popular with Detroiters and members of the Detroit Lions who enjoyed sipping $30 glasses of whiskey. Less pleased was landlord General Motors, who objected to reports of rowdiness and reportedly helped shut down Asian Village for good, according to Nicole Rupersburg. After one year in business, AV was DOA.

Like a lot of things in 2008, AV was not all that it seemed. Shortly after the restaurant shuttered, the feds caught up with Andrew Park, one of the owners of Asian Village. In 2010, he pled guilty to tax evasion and was ordered to send the IRS $300,000 plus interest. But there was more. As Kilpatrick’s corruption trial made headlines a few years later, AV also made a surprise reappearance. Where did mayoral aideDerrick Miller make a payoff to his boss? In the bathroom of Asian Village, of course. Park also admitted to paying a bribe to get a $2.75 million loan from Detroit’s General Retirement System (as the pension system was basically plundered, this $2.75M loss became a footnote).

No part of this tale is meant to disparage the new Asian Village concept. The Asian Village of tomorrow is a much larger development anchored by residential and retail, which will ease the pressure on the restaurant concepts. Marketplace operators One World Market have already run a successful food and grocery operation on the west side. But while this new Asian Village concept will (hopefully) bring us better kimchi and fresher sushi, it’ll never deliver that tantalizing mix of hope, intrigue and scandal that defined AV. And it’s doubtful we’ll ever walk into a room again and see the mayor hanging out in the same place as a contestant from “America’s Next Top Model,” a few pro athletes and folks like us. Pour a Suntory whisky out for the old days of Detroit. –Ashley C. Woods

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Ashley Woods Branch is the founder and CEO of Detour Media, a local journalism startup that builds community, spotlights neighborhood issues and curates Detroit news through an equitable perspective. Ashley leads Detour’s audience growth strategies, community partnerships, revenue operations and strategic planning. She’s also a sought-after consultant for digital newsrooms and has worked with more than 100 news outlets across America. Ashley previously led consumer experience and digital strategy at the Detroit Free Press and was the editor of HuffPost’s Detroit bureau, as well as a reporter and editor focused on Detroit culture and development for MLive, Real Detroit Weekly and Model D. She was a 2019 Marshall Memorial Fellow and a 2018 Visiting Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter: @ash_detroit