AGI Construction builds Detroiters' stories into green hub design

This story is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI).

Tanya Saldivar-Ali, and her husband, Luis, have witnessed how a Detroit property can tell the stories of its residents. It's one of the reasons the couple, founders of AGI Construction company, are including interactive stories in the design hub they are creating on 18th Street. 

Saldivar-Ali and her team are converting a Queen Anne-style residential house in southwest Detroit to create the 18th Street Design Build Green Hub, where they plan to grow a local construction industry pipeline through development collaboration. Planned spaces at the hub are aimed at helping neighborhood residents explore careers in construction, design, and placemaking, while accessing training provided by Detroit Future Ops, the social development arm of AGI.

“We hope this incubating space brings people together who are supportive of that,” says Saldivar-Ali. “Working with architects, engineers, minority-owned businesses, bringing to the forefront exposure — identifying the pathways.”

Meeting a need

In Detroit, the shortage of skilled trade workers has been a barrier in equitable wages and development. Across the U.S. more than 11 million people work in the construction industry but only 6.4% of employees are Black or African American, and despite the construction industry being one of the highest sectors for Hispanic-owned firms, that statistic is still only 15.6%.

Saldivar-Ali believes community hubs can play a role in centralizing opportunities and providing access to the local area’s job market. Located in the Hubbard-Richard neighborhood, near Ford Motor Company’s new development of the Michigan Central train station and the nearby Gordie Howe Bridge project, she sees the potential for the 18th Street site to connect residents to a growing industry. Involving youth, she says, is key. 

“This new generation is not interested,” Saldivar-Ali says. “I don’t think we talk enough about pathways. It’s not just construction but careers like urban planners and inspectors.”

On the ground, a lot of their work is about connecting construction workers, particularly minority-owned contractors, with mentors in the industry. 

“We just partnered with local cement contractor who is really good at what he does, but didn’t quite have the experience he needed,” Saldivar-Ali says in regards to a $70,000 part of a project at the nearby First Latin American Baptist Church. “So we found an experienced contractor looking at retirement, Ben Rodriguez, who has 53 years' experience, who could come in and mentor.”

Connecting the community is one of the reasons the team is so keen to include local stakeholders not just in the construction of the hub, but in the design itself. That kind of “bottom-up” approach to business practice takes time, however, and the design process of the hub has taken longer than they expected.

“After a year-and-a-half of engagement with the community, we found there were some things they loved and some things they hated,” Saldivar-Ali says. “We had to think out of the box to be inclusive and flexible.”

High-tech storytelling

That inclusion involves recognizing the narratives that make up the surrounding community, a passion that led to the couple’s work being showcased in the Detroit Month of Design this year. Detroit earned a City of Design designation from UNESCO in 2015, which is celebrated each September, and the work going on at 18th Street makes it easy to understand why the city drew international attention. 

With limited wall space, Saldivar-Ali was tasked with displaying community stories, particularly those of local veterans, in a confined manner. The answer came in a cutting edge way. 

If These Walls Could Talk” is a self-guided virtual reality tour that chronicles local stories and neighborhood culture, and showcases community design ideas, taking visitors through a vision for the hub with the ability to click on recorded interviews.

“The idea is that we would continue to build off this to tell the stories about local residents, about green construction, about hiring local talent,” says Saldivar-Ali. “It embodies the whole design process around what this means to us, to the community.”

This nontraditional approach is why people like Orlando Bailey, from engagement network group Urban Consulate, is excited to watch what the couple does next. He worked with the pair through a New Economy Initiative project and says he is impressed with the way they have overcome hurdles to maintain connections. 

“You have a construction company that has a community approach, that cares about the human, about stories. The building is important, but the story is important,” he says

Setting an intentional example

It’s not the only technology the hub is making the most of. AGI teamed up with veteran Seann Lewis to create a 360-degree photo tour and a second immersive tour of the construction is available on the hub’s website using 3D scanning, allowing visitors to safely "walk" through the site as it looked when AGI purchased it in 2017.

But it’s obvious Saldivar-Ali holds a special pride in the way they are utilizing green technology, and modeling efficient and sustainable development.

“We are being intentional about how we retrofit this house,” she says. “We want things real Detroiters can afford, not the most expensive.”

“It's not about the building or what paint you picked — it's about how are these spaces being used and how do people have access to these space.”

A balancing act

When she isn’t at the design hub, Saldivar-Ali is continuing her studies in urban planning and with Ali still in active duty with the U.S. National Guard, the couple is juggling raising their three children while developing the hub. It’s often a challenge, admits Saldivar-Ali. 

Balancing roles doesn't just pertain to the couple's personal and professional life, however, in their business too they find themselves in a unique position between traditional models. 

“We are for-profit but with a mission,” says Saldivar-Ali. “It’s hard to figure out where we fit in. There’s not really a healthy model for for-profit but innovative businesses.”

Support has, however, come from being recognized as a Detroit Innovation Fellow, where Saldivar-Ali was able to connect with like-minded changemakers and boost funding. As well as an initial $10,000 grant, Saldivar-Ali says the exposure the network of innovators provided helped raise an additional $8,000 to put toward the business. 

Help has also come from the Detroit Development Fund, Local Initiatives Support Corp, Wayne County, and Motor City Match, and the couple hopes to finalize a matching grant for $65,000 this month to meet their needs. But Saldivar-Ali sees a much more valuable outcome than the funding. 

“Relationships are the future currency,” she says. “And will be crucial moving forward in these unprecedented times.” 
When COVID-19 brought their projects, and income, to an abrupt halt this year, Saldivar-Ali witnessed just how important those relationships are. 

“Those support systems have been amazing for garnering access that has kept us above water,” she says. “And because we have personal relationships with clients we have a robust pipeline. We are at full capacity. The problem is we need to build capacity for others, there's too much work and not enough labor.”

This is part of a series supported by the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a special project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that is working to build an inclusive regional network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses. Social entrepreneurs featured in this series are fellows of the last cohort of NEI’s Detroit Innovation Fellowship (DIF), a talent development program that connects, promotes, and invests in people who are leading projects to transform their communities.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is a freelance writer and editor based out of Detroit. Contact her at [email protected].
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