These 3 Black-led development efforts are putting community front and center in Detroit

Looking around his neighborhood, the historic Detroit community of Virginia Park, back in 2014, George Adams Jr. was unsettled by all the blight he saw. So, the realtor and current president of the W. Euclid/W. Philadelphia Neighborhood Association decided to do something about it. 

Working with others in the neighborhood, Adams formed an organization called 360 Detroit, dedicated to improving the quality of life in the area through communityGeorge Adams, Jr. organizing and revitalization activities.  

"We started 360 Detroit to address some needs in the Virginia Park community [like] boarding up houses, cleaning up alleys, cutting grass in the vacant lots," says Adams. "All the vacant lots,  we began to transform [them] into useful green space."

Now, eight years later, thanks to that work and a related effort to renovate dilapidated homes in the area, the neighborhood is looking better than it has in many years. What's more, 360 Detroit, has just completed what could be considered the crown jewel of their labors, a new pocket park called 360 Park.

Located at the corner of Byron Street and Virginia Park Street, the new tree-lined recreation area features a playscape with slides and climbing opportunities, swings, a sitting area with a giant chair, and a nature area. 360 Detroit was inspired to build the new park after surveying local residents and finding a strong desire for a place where neighborhood youth could get together and play. The park was built with funding from organizations like the Kresge Foundation, ESPN RePlay's Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Legacy Fund, and Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency. It officially opened in October. 

360 Park is just one of several projects the organization has been working on to help bring back the community's former vitality. Others include an art house with a colorfully painted fence, where residents can gather and express themselves creatively; the Holland Maze, a traffic island near the Lodge Freeway that is now filled with flowers and walking paths; and several repurposed lots beautified with elements like trees, flowers, and picnic tables. 

With the park completed, 360 Detroit is now interested in developing programming for area residents. Looking back at the group's work, Adams is proud of what the organization has accomplished and optimistic about the effect it will have on the neighborhood. 

"We hope to impact the children in the community and members at large and to leave a lasting legacy about the transformation and the progress that can be made," he says. 

Detroit Pizza BarBuilding for community

360 Detroit's work is a good example of what's known as placemaking. That's an urban design term used to describe efforts that transform public places while at the same time strengthening the connections between those spaces and the people who live near them. In the case of Virginia Park, the organization Adams founded has helped residents address blight through beautification work and the repurposing of neglected neighborhood spots. And in doing so, it's also fostered a positive community spirit in the neighborhood.

The transformation of 360 Park certainly isn't the only Black-led community-orientedAkkuna Olumba development project happening in Detroit right now. And that work isn't solely limited to placemaking efforts.

The Detroit Pizza Bar is a $1.3 million community-centered project connected to the development of the McNichols corridor which has been targeted for investment through the city's Strategic Neighborhood fund. 

Located at 7316 W. McNichols, the new pizzeria is being built by Akunna Olumba and Marcus Jones of the Legacy City Group. Set to open soon, it will operate as a full-service restaurant and bar with its own wood-fired stove. The new dining spot will specialize in square pizzas, while also featuring a variety of affordable menu items. 

Olumba and Jones came up with the idea for the pizza bar in response to a request from Invest Detroit for proposals to redevelop the building. They were driving through the area one day, when Jones remarked the neighborhood didn't have a sit-down restaurant. Olumba, a pizza lover, then made it their mission to transform the spot into a pizzeria. With that thought in mind, Legacy City Group reached out to residents through an on-staff community ambassador and got feedback on the idea from local residents.

"They kept saying that they wanted something that felt like downtown [and] wanted somewhere they'd feel comfortable [going on a] dinner date," says Olumba. "They do have those things on Livernois, but they wanted them closer to home, so being on that McNichols corridor was key."

The two-story 4,500-square-foot space has now been redesigned with the goal of being welcoming to local residents. It features an open floor plan with a covered roof-top terrace, large glass windows, and lots of natural lighting.

Beyond that, there's also a strong social component to the new pizzeria. The two partners are determined to have 80 percent of the pizza bar's 88-member staff come from the surrounding area,  and are instituting a profit-sharing plan that will put aside 20 percent of annual profits for employees. They also plan to source menu ingredients from local farmers and to feature a "community pizza menu" that will allow local groups to design their own pizza and receive a dollar from the proceeds each time one of those pizzas is purchased.

Olumba hopes the space, which will be opening this month or next, will become a local institution where block clubs can meet and residents can come to celebrate events like birthdays and holiday parties.

"When you look at other cities, there are places that have been around for 50 years. And that's what we want to be able to do for the restaurant," she says. "We want the legacy to last."

Osi Art ApartmentsFocusing on 'placekeeping'

Rather than placemaking, Roderick Hardamon, founder and chairman of URGE Development Group, describes the work he and his partner, gallery owner George N'Namdi, are doing with the Osi Art Apartments as "placekeeping."

"Oftentimes people focus on placemaking, which is kind of the reinvention of something that was there," he says. "Our perspective is a bit different. We try toHardamon and N'Namdi focus on preserving historical legacy and culture, while adding something new to the vibrancy of a neighborhood and culture in the community." 

Located at 3820 Grand River Avenue in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood, Osi Art Apartments @ West End is a $6.6 million dollar mixed-use development. Once completed, the four-story 26,000-square-foot building will be home to 30 residential units, 15 of which will be reserved for tenants making 80 percent of the area median income (AMI), which is approximately $42,000 per year. Exactly who will occupy the building's ground-floor commercial space is still being determined, but potential candidates include a cafe, a restaurant, and several retail outlets. 

This description of the development's schematics, however, doesn't do it complete justice. Renderings of the project do a better job of conveying its intended feel, showing off the completed apartment's curiously angled sawtooth roof and a colorful white, red, and yellow mural designed by artist Osi Audu. 
"Woodbridge has always been considered a community that was honored and heavily enriched by artistic culture, so we wanted that building to resonate in the same way," says Hardamon. "We wanted it to be a beautiful design that represents art visually and really feel it  fits the fabric of the Woodbridge."

As with 360 Park and Detroit Pizza Bar, community residents were consulted about the development prior to a final plan being submitted to the city. The engagement process for the Osi Arts Apartments, which included community meetings and outreach to neighborhood groups, began 18 months before the start of construction last October. 

The new development is envisioned by Hardamon and N'Namdi as being part of a wider art-focused West End Gallery District that could one day bring a mix of galleries, retail outlets, dining establishments, bars, and mixed-use buildings to Grand River Avenue. While construction on the Osi Art Apartments has faced some pandemic-related challenges, the building is expected to be completed in 2022. 

Earlier this month, Hardamon and N'Namdi broke ground on another arts-related project, The Sawyer Art Apartments, located in Detroit's Live6 neighborhood at 7303 West McNichols Road. The three-story building there will house 38 affordable apartments (targeted at residents making between 60 and 80 percent AMI) and four ground-floor retail spaces, which will be made available at reduced rates. The project is named after local artist Tylonn Sawyer, whose artwork will be featured on both the inside and exterior of the building. 

The two developments are being made possible through a combination of public and private investment. The Osi Art Apartments are receiving a $470,000 investment and additional financing through the Detroit Housing for the Future Fund investment, as well as loans from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Invest Detroit, and the Michigan Community Revitalization Program, tax increment funding through the Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and a Commercial Rehabilitation Tax Abatement. The Sawyer Art Apartments includes financial support from a variety of sources, including a $3.5 million New Market Tax Credit award from Invest Detroit and $2.5 million from Detroit's Strategic Neighborhood Fund, as well as financing from Capital Impact, a  Michigan Strategic Fund loan, and a commercial rehabilitation tax abatement.

For Hardamon, both projects exemplify his conception of placekeeping and are bound to have benefits for local residents and other stakeholders that utilitarian buildings just don't have. 

"It's important for communities to see beautifully designed thoughtful projects that reflect them," he says. "It gives a sense not only of what's possible, but gives a sense of hope [and] what can be done if you're creative and can imagine something just a little differently."

All photos by Nick Hagen, unless otherwise noted. 

This is part of the Block by Block series, supported by FHLBank Indianapolis, that follows minority-driven development in Detroit.
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David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.