Midtown rebuilding block

For more than 50 years, George Stewart watched the block (between Parsons and Alexandrine), home to the onetime Garden Theater -- first as a student, later as a corporate executive, then as a real estate developer. On June 11, he and partners Michael Byrd and William Mosely, formally launched renovation of the theater and construction of a mixed use apartment/commercial development on the northern corner of the 3900 block of Woodward. Built by C. Howard Crane, known for the Fox Theatre, the 1,300 person capacity Garden Theater isn’t the finest of theaters, but it offers a larger complement to the Majestic Theater, and more importantly, breathes life into the block.

Stewart and others would say it’s the block that matters. "When you capture the block, you control your area better than if you have one building on the block. I think that’s what’s happened to the city. The city has a whole lot of blocks with one building and nothing else there." The Garden Theater alone would have struggled, buttressed by empty, dilapidated storefronts.

Most development projects in Detroit are complex, fraught with risk and delay. But a decade of painstaking steps to bring closure on a project is the ultimate test of a developer’s patience. "The first few years is spent assembling ownership," says Alan Levy, former deputy planning director for the City of Detroit. "You’re putting money out and not getting anything back for all that time, energy, and money spent. If you’re a nonprofit like Midtown, you can do that. After four, five, six years the world may look different than you started out thinking this would be a good deal. It’s really a testament to both his willingness to go for the long term and that Sue (Mosey, executive director of Midtown, Inc.) and the foundations have created an environment in which he (Stewart) doesn’t walk away."

Essential to patience is vision, explains Stewart. "If you’re going to do these projects, you can’t just see what it is today. You have to see what it can become. If we can do something to bring this area back... one block at a time, that is what it’s going to take to get Detroit back to the great, vibrant community it was. If we only look at the problems, you’d give up."

When Stewart was a WSU doctoral candidate in mathematics, the area, then known as the Cass Corridor, was well into its descent. There were some vestiges of the old Paradise Valley era -- the Flame Show Bar, Gotham Hotel, Chesterfield Lounge, and 20 Grand, but blight had taken its toll.

However, there is a rich cultural history that deserves to be preserved, Stewart says. "If you are a scholar of the arts you discover that there is a need to preserve history. Doing renovation and restoration isn’t always the cheapest way." Stewart references Roman ruins, linking his appreciation for historic preservation to his WSU humanities classes. "I'm restoring these ruins because my vision is that they are going to become an elegant building once it’s done. I don't think we should be quick at destroying because we have a lot of architecture that we can’t afford to rebuild. Preserving isn’t always cheap, but preserving can be very rich from an intellectual perspective."

Stewart says the development plan defined itself as it evolved. "Sometimes... you get out into deep water and you get out there so far you only have one choice, and that's just to tread water until you can drift to the right shore, hopefully," he says. "We set out to do a theater. The city required parking, so we ended up doing parking. In order to get the parking to fit, we ended up (demolishing) some buildings, and doing some lot-splitting to build the parking deck."

With a 300 space parking structure and no income from the theater, he needed to fill the parking spaces. So he built a new office building to house the WSU School of Medicine Family Medicine Department, and lured other parking commitments. Each step led to a necessary next step. Midtown, Inc., moved into three of the street-level storefronts. "You get so far into it that you end up treading water in order to make it happen," he says.

While others have attempted to acquire the Garden Theater, the block was otherwise considerd a "dead zone" for Midtown development, Mosey says, an important link between the Orchestra Hall/Max with the rest of Midtown, and the proposed Woodward light rail system. Given that this is a risky venture, the financial package was complex, involving practically every source of funding available for urban development, including Stewart’s personal savings, which covered much of the pre-development costs.

"It's a great project," Mosey says. "It really symbolizes all of us working together as a team, all the way through, supporting each other, advocating for funding. There’s a lot of stuff that has to be wrapped around a development like this -- soft tissue work, all non-traditional lenders. That’s the secret to our success -- non-traditional funders who believe in the neighborhood and understand the transitioning market and are willing to work with us to make these key investments."

The 3900 block is consistent with "main street" development theory, says Levy, now principal of Goaltrac, a consulting company. The trick is in the scale of the development -- can’t be too large or to small for the financials to work. "They figured out that in order to get this project done they needed to get control or enough control over all the parcels and all the buildings in the whole block. In doing it, they’d lower the risk because they wouldn’t be next to a blighted building and it would be large enough to attract the resources."

A year from now, if all goes as planned, Stewart will dedicate the Garden Theater. On either side of the theater will be development in various stages of completion. There will be no other darkened stretches of Woodward in Midtown.

Freelance writer Dennis Archambault is a longtime contributor to Model D.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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Read more articles by Dennis Archambault.

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.