Midtown Density

Wayne State University and a number of Midtown developers want more people to follow in the footsteps of Susan Burns.

The vice president of development for WSU moved to Midtown eight years ago before the neighborhood became a haven for hipsters and urban enthusiasts. She describes buying her home, which didn't even have the walls up yet, as "a real leap of faith." But it also had everything she and her husband, a painter, were looking for: walkability, urban density, historic architecture, close proximity to work, space for an art studio and the cosmopolitan feel of a big city.

"It's perfect," Burns says. "We really couldn’t find everything we wanted that fit all of our needs as well as this. That helps when you wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'Oh my God! Nobody else is doing this!' But this is the only thing that fits all of our needs."

Wayne State is also hoping more university employees wake up to the idea of living in the surrounding Midtown neighborhood. The university is working with Midtown developers to offer financial incentives to Wayne State staff and students to buy in the neighborhood.

The university is spearheading these public-private partnerships to develop more residential housing in Midtown as part of its strategic plan to transform the area into a thriving urban community. It's well-known that many of Wayne State's 33,000 students have moved into the variety of residence halls and apartment buildings on campus in recent years. University leaders hope more of the school's 9,000 faculty and staff will decide to move into some of the 500 new homes on the market.

“Today more and more people are realizing that Midtown Detroit is where the action is,” says Wayne State President Irvin Reid. “As we fulfill our strategic mission to revitalize Detroit, we have become part of the growing rhythm of this diverse neighborhood and we are devoting necessary resources to help our students, faculty and staff share in this vision for Midtown living.”

Investments and upgrades

There is a lot of room for improvement in attracting more Wayne State people. The developer behind the Willy's Overland, Stuber-Stone and Springfield loft developments, Robert Slattery, estimates that about 10 percent of his units are sold to people affiliated with the university.

He is excited about the partnership with the university, which has published a slick booklet detailing the Midtown-area developments and the incentives offered. Slattery is offering up to $6,000 off the purchase price and a 30 percent discount on unit upgrades to people affiliated with WSU. He's optimistic this will steer more university people toward Midtown.

"This is one of the best investments the university is promoting. It's exciting," Slattery says. "With all of the people who are employed down here and the price of gas and all of the improvements the university is making in the neighborhood, it just makes sense."

Slattery has been one of the leaders in those improvements. He bought a historic home on Willis in 1981 when Midtown was known as the Cass Corridor. The bank only agreed to lend him the money for it if he bought three other nearby apartment buildings and rehabilitated them, too. He half jokes that his 5-year plan turned into a 20-year plan and produced the loft development he has today.

But he's not joking when he says his vision for a clean, safe neighborhood teeming with people is coming around. Property values have gone from zero to $200 a square foot in that time and he only sees them going higher as more retail businesses and people move into Midtown.

"We have every type of housing in the neighborhood," Slattery says. "We have affordable housing and upscale luxury living and senior living and student living. We have a lot going on in the area. If the (overall) market was better we would really be moving."

A lot of that progress, more than $1.6 billion in new residential and commercial construction over the past 10 years, has coincided with a push by the university to create a more traditional college campus. It has built nine buildings since 2000, including a couple residence halls. It just started construction on the $50-million South University Village project on Woodward Avenue adjacent to The Whitney restaurant. The mixed-use development includes space for 130 apartments and retail space.

It's a world away from the Midtown Hope Hiller moved to 20 years ago when she started graduate school at Wayne State. She describes it as so desolate that you could have fired a cannon down Woodward without worry of hitting anyone.

Today she sees more and more young people crowding the streets in her neighborhood. She sees them attracting more retail and entertainment businesses in the near future, helping Midtown reach its potential.

"It feels more like a city than it used to," Hiller says. "It just keeps getting better and more crowded. That's a good thing."

More on the drawing board

Collin Hubbell, the developer behind 55 W. Canfield Lofts and the Art Center town and carriage houses, says Midtown has many of the amenities that will attract more Wayne State people to live there, such as the Cultural Center institutions, the university, proximity to downtown and a location straddling Woodward.

Hubbell, an East English Village resident, sees this as "gaps being filled in" and a big reason why there are a many more developments "on the drawing board right now." Wayne State is the "anchor" for all of this activity, which why he says it's important the university is teaming up with local developers to bring in more people affiliated with the school to the neighborhood.

"It makes all of the sense in the world," Hubbell says. "They have the potential to be a catalyst in Midtown and do something really big."

Jon Zemke is a frequent contributor to Model D.


55 West Canfield Interior

The Willys Overland Lofts

Wayne State President Irvin Reid at the Studio One Groundbreaking on Woodward

Stuber-Stone Lofts

Stuber-Stone Loft Interior

Colin Hubbell

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.