Forging Brush Park

Once a poster child for Detroit’s urban blight, Brush Park is emerging as a dynamic symbol of the city’s urban residential renaissance.

Originally prime farmland and later the city’s first affluent neighborhood, the small neighborhood off Woodward wedged between Downtown skyscrapers and the Midtown hospitals was for decades greatly abandoned, shuttered and rundown.

But now, Brush Park is coming back. Construction crews work on almost every block — repaving, rehabbing and building from scratch. And, slowly, like a geologic formation, a community is melding.

It hasn’t been pretty. After years of arduous planning and conflicting interests by local stakeholders, a diverse array of residential developments, anchored by scattered Victorian-era houses in various stages of restoration, are creating a new urban place.

The result has filled Brush Park with a variety of housing and institutions:
• Nearly 200 condominiums, townhouses and restored historic buildings;
• Lofts in former apartment buildings;
• Row houses, lofts, “live-work” townhouses and shops planned for the center, which also includes a national historic district;
• Two bed-and-breakfast inns in restored stately homes;
• A senior citizen apartment complex;
• Three social fraternity houses, two non-profit human service organizations, a university theater, theological seminary, and a law firm among other commercial properties;
• More than 20 original historic homes in various stages of restoration.

But is it a community? Maybe not quite yet. Different people with different lifestyles are settling into Brush Park, redefining the area once more. And, in time, residents say they’ll all come together.

Old and new

When Gail Phillips was a young girl, she participated in recreational activities at the Detroit Urban League on Mack Avenue, in the onetime Brush Park home of architect Albert Kahn.

“I didn’t know I would live (in Brush Park) but I used to think, when I saw those beautiful houses, if this would come back this would be a good place to live. Little did I know that 30 years later I would actually live there,” says Phillips.

She especially admired one particular derelict brownstone row house on John R. “Back in the ’60s it looked horrible… I used to imagine, if they would spend some time and money on that, this would be a really neat place to live.” Now, she says, “I am living right across the street. That brownstone is beautiful.” And those six brownstone units sold for more than $450,000 apiece.

Phillips moved from Lafayette Park to Brush Park to be part of the excitement of the emerging downtown lifestyle. “I was looking for something that I could drive in and that’s it. I didn’t want to get on an elevator … I wanted to be able to come and go and do as we please.” Together with her boyfriend, Ganesh
Vedhapudi, she purchased a condo in the Crosswinds Communities development at the south end of Brush Park on John R and Alfred streets.

After a while, she realized that her neighborhood was distinct from the other activity in Brush Park. “In our end, Crosswinds is an entity unto itself,” she says. “You’re in a world that’s different. … You’re consumed with your own environment.”

Crosswinds’ planned community center is one way to remedy that, she says. Phillips says that a community center promotes a sense of belonging. “If it’s a sizable community center, we can come together,” she says. “It would be an excellent meeting ground, instead of being fragmented to go to different places.”

Dream home

 Marilyn and Ghassan Yezbeck took a tour of Brush Park out of curiosity in 1986. When they walked into the ruins of a mansion on Adelaide, Ghassan proclaimed: “I want this house.” The house was surrounded by other ruins – as has been documented in Web sites, local publications and even the New York Times – which stood as a sad testimonial to Detroit’s urban decline.

But the Yezbecks, who lived in the Woodbridge Historic District, were optimistic. Little did they know that Brush Park would get worse before it would get better. And little did they know that their passion for that old house would become the Inn on Winder Street, now a very fashionable address celebrated for its architectural beauty and the envy of old house enthusiasts.

Like some other Brush Park residents, banks would not give them a mortgage. “There was nothing here, nothing there, and everything was coming down,” Marilyn says. The city wanted to demolish the house to clear space for development. The Yezbecks and other homeowners fought the city.

Then, in 1989, while staying at a bed and breakfast in Saginaw, it occurred to the couple that they could convert their dream home into an inn. It took them more than a decade to get the money and work complete, but the Inn at 97 Winder opened last year. “This is still our dream house,” Marilyn says. “We live here.”

Marilyn Yezbeck is now president of the Brush Park Development Corp., and she’s uniquely positioned as a long-time homeowner, whose property is integrated into the new Crosswinds development.

“I would really like to see it evolve into a cohesive area – neighborhood — again, even with the patchwork (development). I think that when it’s finally developed and they get some green space in … I really think that in five years, my vision is that this will be a neighborhood.”

‘Location, location, location’

Michael Farrell’s once darkly comic observations on the pathos of 25 years struggling in Brush Park have been replaced with optimism, almost a romantic sense that Detroit is “becoming.”

Upon seeing a young woman walking her dog alone one morning recently, Farrell called to her from his Alfred Street house, “Do you know where you are?” She calmly said she did, and continued walking. That’s when he realized his neighborhood had changed.

When he moved to Brush Park, Farrell “fell in love with it in about 20 minutes.” The “grit” and the “realness” of Detroit’s urban landscape circa 1981 appealed to him. Twenty-five years later, “it’s slowly coming back,” he says. “When I bought the house, everybody laughed. They said, ‘Location, location, location.’”

Today he mocks them with his catbird seat in Brush Park: “Location, location, location.” However, “I didn’t buy this house for that,” he says. “I went to school in Europe and I loved that (Brush Park) architecture, the detail, the spaces, and I loved the age … that’s what I do, I’m an art historian.”

The location, even in 1981, was very good for Farrell, who teaches at the University of Windsor. He’s 10 minutes from work, 20 minutes to malls, and even closer to medical and cultural institutions. Eastern Market is only a few blocks away, and the Detroit River and cultural center are a short walk. “There’s no better location,” Farrell says. “Detroit is perception, perception, perception.”

Having watched a wealth of architecture crumble before his eyes, Farrell now sees the potential of an upscale neighborhood accented by what remains of these stately homes, “visual apostrophes on the landscape.”

“It isn’t that we have so few buildings left, it’s that we have so much left,” he says. In fact, he’s named his “Art House” and hosts monthly lectures and tours (e-mail him at [email protected] for more info). “We have lost an incalculable number, but in the history of domestic architecture we have almost every style from the 19th Century: Arts and Crafts, Tudor, Gothic Revival, Colonial Revival, French Second Empire, Queen Anne. … The only thing we’re missing here is the Federal Style.

“People who are going to buy here are the people we have not had in the city of Detroit for decades – that is people with a vision. … I think Detroit is now in the ‘becoming.’ It’s going to happen. How it’s going to happen will depend on how these people are going to decide – these voters with their money are the future of this city. The people who pay taxes demand a voice and will demand services.”

Coming together

Kappa Alpha Psi is one of three African-American fraternal organizations that have had a presence in Brush Park long before the demise of its architecture. Located in the northern section Brush Park, each fraternity has a development plan for the area adjacent to their fraternity houses.

The Joint Fraternal Development Corporation (JFDC) was formed to coordinate their efforts and collaborate with the Brush Park Development Corp., established to administer the Brush Park redevelopment plan.

Kern Tomlin, a Kappa and former JFDC president, has had an interest in Brush Park since the 1940s, when he visited his uncle on Alfred Street to watch the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Tomlin, who remains an active member of the JFDC and serves as chairman of the Brush Park Manor Paradise Valley senior residence, has been involved in nearly all of the current planning and development activity in Brush Park. The area is slowly coming together, he says.

“By the time the complete mix (of developments) comes together, we’ll have a community,” he says. That includes the seniors living in Brush Park Manor, some of whom were displaced by development projects.

He envisions “a community where people know each other, take care of each other, speak to each other…We don’t want to segregate one group against another. We don’t want the people on Eliot not to know the people on Winder, and some of the people on Alfred not to know the people on Watson. … We hope to keep a mix and have a viable Detroit community.”

Family life

When Chuck and Margaret Squires bought their 5,200 square foot house in 1981, Chuck thought I would be a “good fixer-upper.” A skilled construction craftsman, he’s invested an estimated $500,000 of his own time and $300,000 in materials to restore the house.

“The area had recently been declared historical,” he says. “I was naïve enough to think it would come back rather quickly.” Much of the historic housing stock in Brush Park would disappear before development began in earnest in the 1990s. Ironically, today, seemingly crumbling houses without roofs and, maybe, four exterior walls are being reconstructed and are selling.

Their house, however, is only one aspect of living an urban lifestyle, says Squires, vice president of the Brush Park Development Corp. “Brush Park is a unique neighborhood within the city of Detroit… smack dab in the middle of the urban fabric. We’re sandwiched between the central business district, the medical center and (Wayne State) university.” That location means Brush Park is naturally a “transitional” neighborhood, he says. “It needs a mix of housing types.” This residential diversity, he says, is one of the reasons why the redevelopment of Brush Park has been so slow.

After 25 years, his family is grown and his house is nearly restored. The neighborhood, Chuck says, has become “livable,” and walkable. Chuck and Margaret walk downtown, to Campus Martius and Hart Plaza. It will be some time, however, before a true community emerges in Brush Park, Chuck says. “You still see divisions, especially Crosswinds, which has its own neighborhood watch."

There’s a long way to go, he says, but “I think there continues to be an influx of new people and new energy that will continue to grow the neighborhood.”

Emerging market

One of the most graphic examples of the transformation of Brush Park can be found in the Lucien Moore House, 104 Edmund Place. In a 2002 photo by Jan Kaulins, the house is abandoned and in ruins. Three years later, it’s under restoration, thanks to a $50,000 grant from HGTV’s Restore America program.

Other historic homes on Winder and Adelaide are in the process of redevelopment and sale, largely the result of a market that Crosswinds Communities helped cultivate more than 10 years ago. The development company was the first to express interest in the area, launching a massive new construction project of market-rate condominiums. With 160 sold – most before construction even began – they showed that the environment is ripe for redevelopment.

“There certainly are people who want to be close or in downtown Detroit, and want to be near restaurants and cultural events,” says Ehrich Crain, vice president of land planning and development for Crosswinds Communities. Those who believed single-family homes aren’t feasible for the downtown area should take note of a duplex that Crosswinds redeveloped into a 3,800-foot home and sold for over $600,000.

Crain says that the market still requires considerable assistance from tax incentives and city planners. But Crosswinds, along with the CDC and the fraternal group — which collaborate as the Brush Park Planning Group — have found a way to make it work.

Crain says the company’s market studies and anecdotal information indicate a demand for living in a diverse, urban community. Brush Park “has a historical perspective and diverse architectural style of existing historical structures that folks can look at and enjoy, as well as the new product that we were providing.”

The historical character of Brush Park has appealed to Dwight Belyue since he became aware of it in the 1980s. His company, Belmar Development Group, is developing the last major parcel in the center of Brush Park, a six-acre site, which also includes a National Historic District. The mix of new row houses and carriage houses will be accented by the rehabilitation of historic homes. Construction is expected to begin this winter, pending infrastructure improvements.

Belmar is a partner in the Carlton loft development and plans an ambitious redevelopment of the block bordered by Woodward, John R, Watson and Erskine, including the M.W. King David Grand Lodge. Belyue also plans to redevelop an existing building on Woodward to serve as his company office, complemented by a residential/commercial development.

Forging a diverse community

The diversity of architectural styles and residential options is defining an eclectic urban community, Belyue says. “If you have a variety of different types (of housing) you’ll draw different people. … Some may want a townhouse, others may want a mid-rise building, a conventional apartment or a hard-edged loft. Being able to provide that is going to create a long-term community.”

This also ensures a variety of incomes, he says. “To me, that’s what creates a community. You have people of different backgrounds coming together to co-exist. I think it works. I think it works very well.”

Green spaces also bring people together. Belyue is developing a small park and other extensive landscaping as part of his development “to create a community environment.”

Brush Park may yet become Detroit’s greatest success story. The residential development alone is remarkable. What makes Brush Park so intriguing is its efforts to create community among so many divergent interests. From the pioneering homeowners of the 1980s, who withstood the harsh conditions of neglect and crime in what was a barren architectural wilderness, to the new urbanites living in bustling developments throughout the area, Brush Park is a cultural laboratory.

If the people who have come to live in Brush Park only claim to share an interest in protecting their habitat, advocating for city services, keeping the area clean and defining a sense of common place, they will have done what Americans have always done – lay claim to land and call it a community. They just happen to live in Brush Park.

New construction and a renovation project from Crosswinds development on John R

Victorian home undergoing renovations

Gail Phillips and Ganesh Vedhapudi

The Inn at 97 Winder

Interior of the Inn at Winder

Michael Farrell in his "Art House" on Alfred

Chuck and Margaret Squires

Law offices in a Victorian on Alfred

Crosswinds townhouses

The Carlton Lofts

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger
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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.