The last 5 years: Model D picks 5 game-changing Detroit projects

It's been half a decade since Model D committed to documenting the big (Westin Book Cadillac Hotel) and the small (Mudgie's outdoor seating, which we wrote up just last week) in Detroit development each and every week.

Rather than think of it as a pain in the butt, I like to consider my job as development news editor as an excuse to exercise my natural curiosity about my city. "What's going on over there? Wait! Stop for a second!" you might hear me exclaim if you were ever so unfortunate as to be riding a bike with me. [Eds. Note: Really, Kelli? It's not a pain in the butt?] It's also a chance to share with our readers all the stuff happening in Detroit. And there is a lot, even in these darkest of economic straits.

When my editor asked me to pick my "top five developments" of course I, as studiously as ever, decided to pore through the publication's archives and objectively determine those projects that have had the most impact on the cityscape over the last five years.

What ended up happening was that I pulled out my notebook (at a bar, if you're the one taking notes) and jotted down a huge list. We culled that down to a nickel's worth of goodness, with a handful of honorable mentions to seal the deal.

1. Park Avenue: In the heart of it all

Let's start Downtown. There's been some notable busts in our Central Business District -- Cadillac Centre, The Griswold, a new Quicken Loans HQ -- and some huge, huge successes, like Campus Martius, the Detroit RiverWalk, Fort-Shelby Doubletree and the Boll Family YMCA. But when forced to pick one for this piece, I took a stroll down Park Avenue.

This short stretch of street between Grand Circus Park and I-75 started its rebirth back in 1996, with the opening of Sean Harrington's Town Pump Tavern, which, when I was a University of Detroit Mercy student in the mid '90s, was one of the few bars Downtown that I was wont to take suburban friends.

Flash forward to the present tense, and those few blocks now boast a hopping apartment building, the Kales, as well as the stunningly restored jazz club Cliff Bells, the neighborhood-pub-except-when-there's-a-Tigers-game Park Bar, Romanian schwarma flying off the Bucharest Grill, and Harrington's Iodent Building, which houses modern lofts and the art deco-inspired Centaur Bar and, lest we forget, was briefly the home of the ahead-of-its-time retail happening Hugh.

The Colony Club across the street has also been restored, although it's only used for special occasions, but the sum total is a pretty happening avenue taking a stand right down the middle of Ilitch Holdings country. These investors decided to stop waiting to see if there will or will not be a new Joe Louis in the vicinity and, instead, spent millions on restoring several examples of Detroit's phenomenal historic architecture.

If you doubt the import, hang out for a few hours at Grand Circus Park and watch Kales residents walking their dogs, peek in and see the standing-room-only crowds at Moth StorySLAM night at Cliff's, observe the intersection of cargo shorts and high fashion at Centaur, or take on a World Cup match at Park Bar.

Good luck finding a parking spot.

2. Eastern Market: Rethinking a landmark

Eastern Market has been a functioning market neighborhood since 1891 but, since 2007, it has undergone significant, even major, changes. It's no coincidence that's the year operation and management of the city-owned property was assumed by the Eastern Market Corp. The organization's singular focus and nonprofit status has without a doubt energized the entire area, most visibly in the complete rehab of Sheds 2 ($1.3 million) and 3 ($5.5 million), with improvements for Shed 5 next on the drawing board.

It's also worth noting that the strategic diversification of products sold under the sheds to include more locally produced and grown goods has elevated the quality of the Saturday market -- without alienating existing customers. As EMC president Dan Carmody said in a 2008 interview, "The Eastern Market is mostly about food for Detroiters, and it might become more compelling as a tourist attraction, but only if we artfully hone its grittiness and retain its profound sense of authenticity."

So far, so good.

3. CCS' Taubman Center: Expansion of an anchor institution

When General Motors pulled out of the New Center area in 1996, things didn't look so hot for the neighborhood. But the State of Michigan quickly relocated its Detroit operations into its HQ building and, last year, the College for Creative Studies completed a $145 million redevelopment of GM's massive former design center, the 760,000-square-foot Argonaut Building.

This newly named A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education includes CCS' graduate programs, meeting space, student housing, an arts-oriented high school and, hopefully soon, ground floor retail. It not only plugs the biggest remaining hole GM left in the district, it significantly diversifies the crowd pounding the pavement in the uptown business district.

New Center Council is hoping its new New Center Park (which debuts this week, as a matter of fact) draws on this new energy, making the area more dynamic and livable all year long.

4. Studio One Apartments: What Midtown should be

With a bank, bar and grill, coffee shop, art supply store and the ubiquitous Radio Shack, the ground floor retail at Studio One Apartments -- and its packed rear-facing parking lot -- is a great ad for there being a relatively robust commercial market in Midtown.

Studio One is mixed use, it's attractive to students and professionals (although, we've had quibbles with its design and wish they'd opted for something more modern), and its occupancy rate and traffic are promising to the overall health of the area.

5. Honey Bee Market: Really? There're no grocery stores in Detroit?

It's true there are no chain grocery stores in Detroit. It's true there are large swaths of the city with less-than-adequate access to fresh food. But to paint the entire city with one wide brushstroke shows well, a lack of nuance and personal familiarity that we've come to expect from Metro Detroit as a region.

And that's a big part of the reason that Model D exists, to fine-tune that brush a bit.

And on that note, the expansion of Honey Bee La Colmena is a perfect example of a nuanced development that gets its neighborhood. The meticulous grocery store has a range of goods for its Mexican clientele, but also carries products like Great Lakes Coffee and Calder Dairy, making it a weekly stop for gringos from Hubbard Farms and Corktown. And both groups appreciate the quality fresh produce and stellar meat counter.

It's not about one-size-fits-all, it's about scale, product selection, and knowing your community. Honeybee does it right and, frankly, I'd rather see another dozen independent operators than an equivalent number of chains that tend to set up one shop just like another no matter the demographics.

Honorable mentions

6. North Corktown homes: 29 affordable new homes in the neighborhood wedged between Corktown and Woodbridge that, as our 2005 story put it, are "anything but beige." Despite the economy precluding planned future waves of housing development in the area, these are all still occupied and the area is inarguably doing better than it was prior to their construction.

7. MOCAD: A museum of contemporary art in Midtown. Sounds fine, right? While this one, which opened in a former car dealership in 2006, has turned into better than fine. It's the spot for happening Halloween and Valentine's Day parties, art shows, lectures and, perhaps most importantly, it's told us that "Everything will be alright."

Oh, wait. Amend to read, "Nothing will be alright."

That's cool. We still heart MOCAD even when it's a tiny bit mean to us.

8. Woodbridge Pub: Woodbridge has always had location and housing stock going for it. And its proximity to Corktown and Midtown meant that its residents never had to go far for a beer but, other than house parties, where was a Woodbridgian to go when in need of a cold beverage within the boundaries of their own hood?

Enter Woodbridge Pub, a painstakingly conceived neighborhood watering hole that, just to top things off with a bow, serves far-better-than-average bar food. It's one of those little things that glues a community together.

9. Whitdel Apartments: So Southwest Housing completed another apartment renovation? Yawn.

We jest, we jest -- the ongoing rehab of historic multi-unit structures in Southwest Detroit by the agency is nothing short of impressive. While each (Cole, Cabot, Wilshire, Savannah, Galston, the list goes on) are singularly beautiful and collectively impressive for their high occupancy levels and stringent maintenance, the Whitdel on Hubbard at Porter is a standout for its commitment to affordable housing for artists. Plus, there's a gallery run by CAID on its ground level. Soup-to-nuts proof that economic development and art can work together well on a neighborhood scale.

10. Conner Creek Greenway:
Among the numerous bike lane and greenways projects around town, I chose to single this one out because of the fact that about a third of the 9-mile project, which will ultimately run contiguously from the Detroit River to Eight Mile by 2013, is already complete. The fact that the greenway taps into Creekside's 140 acres of riverfront parks, Chandler Park and Mt. Olivet Cemetery and that it takes you pretty darn close to the haunted and awesome Two-Way Inn knocks this project out of the park.

11. Garret, et. al vs. City of Hamtramck: Twenty years ago, a lawsuit was settled that came about from the displacement of mostly African-American residents for the construction of I-75. It called for 200 units of housing to be built and first made available to those displaced or their descendants. It's taken a while, but the city has the final units under contract and expects to be complete in the next 30 months by utilizing a mix of new construction and rehab to get the project done. This one's strictly business and decidedly unsexy, but putting this requirement to bed will let Hamtramck squarely face the future.

12. University of Detroit Mercy Athletics Complex:
UDM is making its campus more and more attractive to students, in part by expanding its athletics program. They've added lacrosse (the only Division 1 LAX team in the state) and tennis to their roster and made vast improvements to their sports facilities: There's a new track and field, tennis complex and golf practice center, and future plans call for stadium seating and improvements to the venerable Calihan Hall. These continued investments are par for the course in the university's steady growth, in both enrollment and proportion of on-campus residents.

Kelli B. Kavanaugh is Model D's development news editor, and she is, although she's too humble to admit it, quite possibly the hardest-working woman in Detroit media. She also co-owns one of our favorite Detroit businesses -- the Wheelhouse Detroit bike shop on the RiverWalk. Give her a virtual round of applause here. (Kelli is blushing when she reads this.)

All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
Contact Marvin here


Detroit skyline at dusk

Eastern Market's Shed 3

Honey Bee Market

MOCAD's Love Sick Valentines Day dance party

Park Avenue


Studio One
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