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Upper floor housing rehabs spur neighborhood growth
 

The Artists’ Touch: How creatives’ investments in upper floor housing built a neighborhood

There’s something different about the Eastern Market neighborhood of Detroit. It’s evident today in the creative investment happening on Gratiot just north of Russell, where a beautiful Art Deco building is being brought back to life, inside and out. The project continues a trend that began on the same block more than 30 years ago when upper floor housing first made an appearance in the neighborhood. Now, the residents living in Eastern Market make the mixed-use area uniquely vibrant, spurring increased redevelopment.

It’s possible that Greg Holm owns the prettiest building on his block in Eastern Market. At least now he does.

The photographer and artist who splits his time between Detroit and New York City bought 1428 Gratiot (just north of Russell St.) last May. Then, it was a forlorn, 2-story commercial structure with walls of bricks blocking ground floor window spaces. Its Art Deco details were barely visible.

That changed shortly after Holm bought it. He took out the window bricks and replaced it with windows for a store on the
It's now the latest example of not only the investment taking place in Eastern Market but the great potential for those taking the plunge.
first floor and a living space on the second floor. He cleaned up the original Art Deco masonry, showing off its bright green-and-white architectural accents. It's now the latest example of not only the investment taking place in Eastern Market, but also the great potential for those taking the plunge.

"It (1428 Gratiot's aesthetics) was the purple gorilla in the room no one noticed," Holm says. "It's the building we glanced past and overlooked, and as an artist I look for those sorts of things."

Holm is responsible for a couple of well-known art installations in the Motor City in recent years, such as the Ice House Detroit. He is continuing to renovate 1428 Gratiot into his home on the second floor and a yet-to-be-determined commercial space, such as an art gallery, on the first floor. He chose the building because of its hidden beauty and his desire to create beautiful things. He chose Eastern Market because of its mix of dynamic businesses, creative-class neighbors and walkability to the farmer's market, restaurants, boutique businesses, downtown and so many other things.

"Eastern Market has everything," Holm says. "A block away you have the Dequindre Cut, which will take you to the waterfront and downtown. For me it has a lot more to offer than the other neighborhoods."


Mixed-use neighborhood

Most neighborhoods in Detroit are dominated by residential properties. Often it's a thin stretch of commercial buildings surrounded by block after block of single-family houses and multi-unit structures. Sometimes the neighborhoods are almost exclusively single-family homes. Eastern Market is the opposite.

The neighborhood is dominated by the farmer's market, which stands as a long line of sheds at its center. A plethora of businesses in century-old commercial buildings surround it, with nary a single-family home around. Many of these structures now feature businesses on the ground floor and loft apartments above, such as the FD Lofts on the north end of the market.

"It makes sense," says Randall Fogelman, vice president of business development at Eastern Market Corp. "The history of the market has always been mixed-use. R Hirt Jr (one of Eastern Market's iconic buildings) was a business on the ground floor and the family lived upstairs."


"It makes sense," says Randall Fogelman, vice president of business development at Eastern Market Corp. "The history of the market has always been mixed-use.
Holm's block on Gratiot is filled with these sorts of buildings. Pat Deegan owns another commercial building next door (1416 Gratiot) that he is turning into a mixed-use structure. Deegan is also a partner in a 4-story building (1528 Gratiot) that was redeveloped into four lofts in 2006. For decades in the mid-to-late 20th Century these buildings were kept primarily as commercial spaces with older residential spaces in upper floors turned into storage space or left vacant. That began to change significantly in the last decade or two with more redevelopment focused on mixed-use and re-incorporating the residential uses.

"That's what saved these places," Deegan says. "If people weren't living there the buildings would have been gone by now."


Creative spaces for the creative class

The 1400 and 1500 blocks of Gratiot have been slowly, yet steadily building up a head of redevelopment steam for years now. It usually wasn't visible from the front doors of vacant or under-used commercial spaces, but the back doors have become increasingly vibrant.

Deegan, who has lived on the block for years, describes the commercial facades as "ghettoflauge," which hid the back entrances that everyone living in the buildings used. Now that the fronts of these buildings are being renovated (thanks in large part to Eastern Market's facade-improvement program) the ghettoflauge is giving way to new commercial spaces for boutique businesses.

"It (the facade improvements) emphasizes what has been going on here for years," Deegan says.
Now that the fronts of these buildings are being renovated (thanks in large part to Eastern Market's facade-improvement program) the ghettoflauge is giving way to new commercial spaces for boutique businesses.


Ameen Howrani started this trend in the late 1970s. The commercial photographer bought 1434 Gratiot (a 2-story commercial building) and redeveloped it into four lofts. His surviving wife and son (Ara Howrani, also a commercial photographer) now manage the building and claim it was the first loft redevelopment in Detroit. "I think he pioneered that trend," Ara Howrani says.

The Howrani family still owns the building, which is adjacent to Holm's building, and manages it as loft apartments. They are hopeful they can turn the ground floor into commercial space again that will help attract more creative people to live, work and play in Eastern Market for years to come.

"There are a lot of awesome, creative minds that have been able to acquire these buildings," Ara Howrani says. "It's really exciting. It's a great mix of beautiful, old buildings and young, creative minds."

Upper floor housing rehabs spur neighborhood growth
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Greg Holm
Artist, Photographer, owner & resident of 1428 Gratiot

The facade of your building looks gorgeous now. What can be done to help more people see older buildings like yours less as problems and more as opportunities? Despite the challenge of adhering to a specific time period, I saw the renovation less as an opportunity, but more a reward that could only come with a certain level of aesthetic responsibility. The decision to take the more difficult path in renovation is to avoid the erosion of a long standing, and historically rich, visual language that our city offers us all.

What sort of role did the affordability of mixed-use buildings play in your decision to begin transitioning from New York to Detroit and invest here? I don't see the affordability of Detroit as having been too much of an influence upon my living status here. In New York, I have come to enjoy a certain variety of choices and this quality of life comes with considerable costs. The truth is Detroit remains a difficult place to reside at times. But I like that many others are now attempting to fill those voids.

If you were King of Detroit, what would you do to make the Eastern Market area more walkable and more connected with the rest of the city? The Dequindre Cut is really a bonus to expanding our idea of where the best real-estate really is located. When (the late developer) Tony Goldman visited last year, he questioned why there wasn't a walking path that went right through the middle of the boulevard on Gratiot. This is the kind of connectivity that we should be thinking about.

Eastern Market is quietly enjoying a significant degree of investment these days. What do you think this neighborhood will look like five years from now? It's important to me that the character of Eastern Market continues to develop while recognizing its gems. I cannot imagine replacing the Alexander Pollock paintings, Busy Bee Hardware, or the candle shop. We have other gems popping up all the time and seeing Salt and Cedar, with their attention to convivial living in the market, definitely gives me hope.