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Up from the Ashes: Tracking the Forest Arms Restoration in Midtown

The century-old Forest Arms apartment building burned more than a year ago and sits vacant today in an otherwise vibrant section of Midtown. Chain link fencing erected around a burnt building usually means a death sentence, a sign of a fast-approaching date with a wrecking ball.

Not so with the Forest Arms. Local leaders and business people have banded together to save the building. They plan to turn the four-story structure into a combination of about 74 apartments and enough retail space for a couple of businesses within the next two years.

"We feel this is one of the most iconic buildings in our neighborhood," says Susan Mosey, president of the University Cultural Center Association which is helping spearhead the project. "Not renovating it wasn't an option."

Looks aren't everything

The Forest Arms opened as one of Detroit's premier apartment buildings in 1908 at the corner of Second and Forest streets. The neighborhood was so underdeveloped at the time that the Forest Arms stood head and shoulders above the single-family homes that dominated the area.

"It's done with a bit bravura," says Mike McCleer, principal of Woodbridge-based McCleer Architetto, the architecture firm handling the redesign of the Forest Arms. "It's really 1908 apartments done with a flourish with all of the bays, and the Flemish gable front and octagonal corners with the metal spires. They did that to attract tenants."

The neighborhood quickly grew up around Forest Arms as the automotive industry began to boom a few years later. Today a number of similar sized apartment buildings from the early 20th Century surround it, but the distinctive red-and-tan brick of Forest Arms stands out. Its unique U-shaped design creates a large courtyard in between the north and south arms of the building.

"It's a pivotal building in the neighborhood," McCleer says. "It's a large building and it has a feature no other building in the area has, its grass court that is open to the street. Most of the apartment buildings in the neighborhood were built at a later date and are denser in the sense that they don't have any outdoor space like that. It's a large, unique building in the neighborhood."

Before the February 2008 fire, the building housed many college students from nearby Wayne State University and the College of Creative Studies. A fire started in one of the penthouse units in the north arm and eventually spread through the whole top floor, burning off the roof and exposing the interior of the building to two freeze-thaw cycles.

The blighted, burned-out look it gives today is deceiving. Although passersby can see debris through the lower windows, broken windows higher up and the sky through the penthouse windows, the building is in solid shape -- enough so that the developer says they only need to put on a new roof and gut the rest of the building to make it habitable.

"It looks bad from the outside because you see all of the fire damage," McCleer says. "But the fire was restricted just to the fourth floor. If it wasn't such a mess from all of the possessions left and all of the water getting in there, it would be almost habitable below the top floor. It's in much better condition than it appears and lends itself easily to being rehabilitated."

The funny thing is the developer saving the Forest Arms probably has the biggest incentive to tear it down. Scott Lowell also owns the apartment building behind Forest Arms, the Aronda. Tearing down the Forest Arms would make a great place for the tenants of his first apartment building rehab to park.

Lowell doesn't see it that way. He is an urbanist who went to Wayne State. He owns a handful of local businesses, such as The Bronx and Traffic Jam & Snug restaurant, along with a few apartment buildings in Midtown. His construction crew is finishing renovating the Beethoven Apartments a few blocks away. If anyone is destined to save the Forest Arms, it's Lowell.

"It would be shame to let it go," Lowell says. "It's in our backyard. I can walk to all of these apartment buildings. My maintenance guy can walk to all of these. My construction crew is acclimated to the area. It's also in my area so I have to look at it all of the time."

He's not the first Lowell to do that. Lowell's grandfather was an architect for Albert Kahn. Lowell says he often envisions his granddad strolling by, marveling at the Forest Arms, imagining designing something like that.

Lowell gets to redesign it today. He plans to keep the ground floor commercial space and the layout of the apartments. Lowell also plans to incorporate a number of sustainable features, such as radiant heat powered by solar panels. He is even toying around with the idea of adding a fifth floor that can't be seen from the street, if he can get the local historic district to go along with it.

The apartments will be updated and higher quality, possibly commanding some of the highest rents in the neighborhood. Lowell's experience tells him this will be anything but easy, but he knows why it's worth it. 

"It will probably give me a big ulcer," Lowell says, "but I'll feel better when it's done knowing it's preserved for another 100 years."

Making the money work

Believe it or not, the construction is the easy part. Lining up the $9 million for that work, that's a different story.

Corey Leon, a tax incentive specialist with AKT Peerless who is a partner in the Forest Arms project, says the death sentence for the structure wouldn't be the fire damage, it'd be the economics. "In our case, what makes this project work is the use of tax incentives, brownfield and historic," he says. "The real key in this will be the new tier-two historic tax credits. Without out those this project doesn't fly."

Those tax incentives can knock as much as 46 percent off the redevelopment costs now that the state has expanded its historic tax credits. They bring the development math close to financially viable. Leon and Lowell are working with the UCCA's Mosey to line up the bank financing and any other gap financing needed to get the project off the ground. The Detroit Investment Fund is also involved in the project.

Leon and the team still need to land a large chunk of traditional bank financing. That's not the easiest task these days, but he is confident they will be able to line up the financing this year, allowing them to get the roof on this summer and then start the rest of the construction.

"Obviously it's difficult, but banks still lend money," Lowell says. "The I's are dotted and the T's are crossed a little bit more so than I would imagine, but if you're going to do a project what better one? It's in a university town. We have reams of information on vacancies and rental rates. We're coming hot off another project. If you're a bank, there is no better."

It's positive thinking, but Mosey says it's not unrealistic. She's seen people like Lowell take on massive rehab projects before in Midtown and make them work.

"People here have been working miracles for decades when it comes to redevelopment," Mosey says. "Many, many, many of those buildings were in horrible condition and were brought back to life. Many buildings that had been vacated for decades are being redeveloped. We don't subscribe to the theory that just because it has been vacant for a long period or just because there has been a fire or just because there has been water damage, that the building can't be rebuilt or redeveloped."



Jon Zemke is Innovation and Job News editor for Model D. This is the first part of an occasional series that will follow the redevelopment of the Forest Arms. Send feedback here.


Photos:

Scott Lowell walks the perimeter of the Forest Arms after realizing someone had broken into the building

Hallway on the top floor of the Forest Arms

The old location of Peoples Records was located in the basement of the Forest Arms

Charred personal remains

Developer, Scott Lowell

Staircase from the main floor

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.



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