Lofts Exposed: A Look at the Real, Raw, 100% Pure Spaces in Detroit

The Milwaukee Park Lofts aren’t exactly easy to find. They're kind of behind an East Grand Boulevard overpass, near Hamtramck's Poletown plant, and just off the street of its namesake – Milwaukee. The entrance is a long driveway, cutting through a dusty field on one side and an industrial plant of some sort on the other. And the entrance sign – letting you know you’ve arrived to a loft complex and not some faded manufacturing company – sits in the shadow of that monstrous, potholed overpass.

Milwaukee Park’s neighbors are a few of Detroit’s rusty warehouses, a highway of railroad tracks, and huge tracts of unused industrial land. Yeah, it’s pretty raw out there.

The lofts themselves don’t match the complete rawness of the post-industrial landscape of the railroads and warehouses. They are more refined.

Electrical sockets aren't hanging from the ceiling, windows aren’t busted out, and walls aren’t plywood nailed together like one might expect from a raw space. Milwaukee Park lofts are livable, urban, and fairly modern.

The lofts are just one example of how Detroit artists, young professionals, hipsters and other denizens are benefiting from the city's industrial past: When it comes to lofts, we've got no shortage of warehouses, factories and other spaces that have been converted into places to live and, often, work. These spaces have what others can't touch: real loft character.

What makes raw

But, what does raw mean anyway?

Different things to different people, apparently.

Hearing "raw loft" evokes an image of an artist eating soup from a hotplate inside a rusty warehouse room, surrounded by old chains and factory doors, with a shabby bed in the corner. Yes, a true-true-true raw space would be something very similar to that, something you’d find inside the Russell Industrial Complex if you could live in those spaces – legally.

A more livable definition of "raw loft" isn’t very easy to pin down. Realtors and developers all have their own opinions about what raw means these days.

What seems to ring true to the basics of raw living spaces are: Exposed brick, ducts, and beams, open spaces, and high ceilings – usually in an urban area, of course. Adding characteristics like a 24-hour fitness center in the basement, valet parking, or an association fee, however, kind of washes away the grit, rendering a it not-so-raw. Four walls of drywall, no huge window, low ceilings and not an exposed brick in the place, and well, that's not quite raw, is it? What you've got there sounds more like a straight-up condo.

Rent or own

From the month-to-month leasing of Milwaukee in the middle of the industrial nowhere, to a “raw” loft with a price tag of $400,000, Detroit’s loft market is quite diverse.

Detroit is filled with loft units – raw, semi-raw, and completely finished. In fact, earlier this year, Lofts – a national magazine about, well, lofts – named Detroit a top five city for these bad boys in the U.S. And it’s about time, really.

"I came from Chicago four years ago," says Ryan Cooley, president of O'Connor Real Estate and Development. "Things like this are so popular in other areas. And it’s finally catching on here."

The price truly dictates the loft market. The more money involved, the more finished and refined a space becomes, shedding the rawness like an old skin and coming out brand new on the other side.

The most raw units are usually leased, often month-to-month. Getting an approval from the landlord doesn’t usually go beyond giving the person in charge a “good vibe.” Units range anywhere from $500 to $1200 a month. And you can find them pretty much in any part of the city.

The Milwaukee Park Lofts are just outside of Hamtramck. There are the River Park Lofts on Iron Street on the East Riverfront, and the 727 Grand Merchant Lofts in Southwest Detroit. There are also the Brooklyn Lofts in Corktown, the Greektown Lofts above Niki’s Pizza, the Universal Lofts on the border of Midtown and New Center, and the Lafayette Lofts on the east end of Downtown – just to name a few. And, in each one, there are more occupants than there are vacancies.

In most cases the units are bi-level studios – some have an extra bedroom – with wood floors, exposed brick, and huge ceilings.

For sale

Now, if you want to take out a mortgage, there are even more options when looking for new digs with some raw character. Here are a few that hang out on the ritzier side of raw:

Grinnell Place Lofts in Corktown (which Cooley represents), the Research Lofts on the border of Midtown and New Center, the Crystal Lofts on Woodward above Zaccaro’s, the Chap Lofts east of New Center on Grand Boulevard, as well as the numerous Midtown developments like Willys Overland Lofts, the original Canfield Lofts and now the 55 W. Canfield lofts are a few of the higher-end, semi-raw spaces.

Places like these have answers to the questions of security, quality of construction, and the overall refined aesthetics of a living space. Most of these places are polished to a shine. You’re going to find granite or stainless steel countertops, spaces with more than one bathroom, and views and balconies that’ll take your breath away.

These units tend to bring young professionals and first time buyers to the city, and a good percentage of them are coming from the suburbs. The refinement of these semi-raw lofts tends to be a good buffer in the transition of suburban to urban living.

"Most of these people are used to living in the suburbs," says Chadd Fox, Research Loft developer. "Living in Detroit can be a boundary for them."

But, they’re coming anyway.

“It’s a lifestyle decision to be here,” Fox adds. “People want to be involved downtown now and they're looking for spaces.

"Young people have experienced the world, been to other places, others cities, and are looking for something more right now," says Austin Black II of Max Broock Realtors. "Detroit has a lot of these things to offer. They’re moving down here looking for these urban spaces."

Raw and loose

Leased units and purchased units are quite different from each other. The rawer you get, the more loose things become – not only in leaky faucets and jingly toilet handles but in neighbors. Not everyone can afford Grinnell, but most people can afford Milwaukee – so you get a cross-section of society, a more diverse group of people, which adds to the rawness of a space. Variety, right? It’s the spice of life.

Bottom line: Detroit truly has something for everyone in every price range and in every look. If you’re looking for something really raw go check out Iron Street or Milwaukee. If you want something super refined but with a little edge check out Grinnell, or the Crystal lofts. If you’re looking to live in a hotel-type environment with exposed brick, head on down to Merchant’s Row (they validate).

Realtors and developers all claim that people look for different things when buying. Some swear it’s the view, some swear it’s the security, and some swear it’s the proximity to the amenities. There is truth in all of that. But what they always seem to go back to one thing – character.

"People are looking to move downtown right now," Cooley says. "People are looking for these modern spaces in Detroit, modern living in Detroit’s old neighborhoods, spaces with character."

And nothin’ says character like raw.

Looking to buy or rent a loft? Here's a list of some of Detroit rawest loft options and where to find them.

Also, Model D has guides to moving to Detroit's neighborhoods, as well as listings for places to move. Find more loft options there.

Terry Parris Jr. is a freelance writer, and he compiles In The News for Model D and metromode.

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

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