Development is booming in Milwaukee Junction, but you might not have noticed it

Rob Wilson was skeptical a neighborhood bar could succeed in Milwaukee Junction. But Kiesling seems to be pulling it off since opening last year.

For years the Tangent and Baltimore galleries have been the closest Milwaukee Junction has come to having a destination business or a neighborhood gathering space. But Wilson, who manages Kiesling, says the bar has pleasantly surprised him by fostering a community vibe that reminds him of the early days of the Woodbridge Pub — another establishment that became a neighborhood anchor. 

"It's a place where you can go and you can hang out and it doesn't matter who you're sitting next to," Wilson says. "We live off our regulars and we have people who come here every day."

Kiesling's success is just one sign of a burgeoning commercial resurgence in Milwaukee Junction, suggesting a potential new era for an area rich in local history.

Bar at Kiesling
Named after the nearby railroad junction formerly used by the Detroit, Grand Haven, and Milwaukee Railway, it was once home to numerous auto manufacturing facilities. The Model T was first produced in the neighborhood.

But these days, as Wilson says, it's "more of a place that's known for abandoned buildings."

As a handful of developers have begun to buy and rehabilitate properties in the neighborhood, however, there's a lot going on — even in some seemingly abandoned structures. One of those developers is Jordan Wolfe and Kyle Polk's Town Partners, which has purchased 10 properties in the neighborhood since 2014. 

"I saw an interesting opportunity to play a role in the community and help contribute to turning the region around through the attraction and retention of young talent," says Wolfe, a Detroit native who counts Dan Gilbert as a mentor.

"It's actually all a walkable district," he says. "You have these old, beautiful industrial buildings that used to be supply houses for the auto industry. ... It's adjacent to three highways. It connects the northern suburbs to the city. It just had the feel. I just walked it and felt it."

Although Wolfe always aimed to support small businesses through his developments, he says Town Partners has somewhat inadvertently "ended up turning into this kind of pseudo-economic development agency." 

There's a remarkable amount of activity inside Town's properties, which are all clustered in a three-block radius between East Grand Boulevard and East Milwaukee Street and remain largely unmarked from the outside. 6545 St. Antoine alone houses a fitness studio, a storage facility for MoGo bikes, and Detroit Dart Club, a "nerf arena," among other businesses.

Detroit Dart Club moved to Milwaukee Junction two years ago from its original home at the Russell Industrial Center. Owner Connor McGaffey says his business, popular for corporate outings and kids' birthday parties, has benefited from the comparatively low-hassle parking available in Milwaukee Junction.

"It's probably going to get trickier as the neighborhood gets busier and busier," he says. "But as of right now you don't really deal with that. I like that it's an up-and-coming area."

McGaffey's business has been something of an inspiration to another new developer in Milwaukee Junction: Method Development, cofounded by metro Detroit natives Amelia Patt Zamir and Rocky Lala. The duo bought five properties from Town Partners in early February, and Zamir says they're planning to introduce "activity-based retail" that encourages families to spend time in Milwaukee Junction. 

Lala says that concept was prompted by observing how "obsessed" his nephews, who live in the suburbs, are with visiting Detroit Dart Club.

"We feel Milwaukee Junction's the next great neighborhood in Detroit," he says. "There's been other staples like Tangent Gallery ... in the neighborhood, but I think it's just ripe to start taking off this year."

Exterior of the Tangent Gallery
Joshua Gershonowicz emphatically echoes that sentiment. He's in the midst of rehabbing a property at Grand and Beaubien to house his marketing firm, Rebuild Group, which is currently located in New Center. He also plans a restaurant on the building's ground floor.

"I'm extremely bullish on the Junction, to say the least," Gershonowicz says. "I think ultimately what will end up happening here is the expansion from Woodward will reach this area."

Gershonowicz is mainly referring to New Center developments, including the major new mixed-use construction The Boulevard, whose developers at The Platform also have big plans for Milwaukee Junction. 

Platform president and CEO Dietrich Knoer describes the neighborhood as part of a strategic "pinwheel" including New Center, TechTown, and the nearby North End neighborhood. He envisions the four neighborhoods as "an area where you could spend a weekend as a visitor and find everything you want."

The Platform is currently at work on two mixed-use developments in Milwaukee Junction, Baltimore Station 1 and Baltimore Station 2. It also recently announced Chroma, which will bring creative office space and a public food hall featuring local restaurateurs to the nine-story building at 2937 E. Grand best known for its mammoth "Illuminated Mural."

"Illuminated Mural" on a building currently being developed by The Platform
"The idea really is to open the building up to creative entrepreneurs to create programming that relates to the surrounding community so that Chroma becomes the anchor on East Grand Boulevard and a catalyst for the continued development in Milwaukee Junction," Knoer says.

Knoer wants "to give to the people that are here and not ... displace what used to give the character to these neighborhoods over the last 100 years." 

That's a value shared by Nicholas Stachurski, who purchased the property at 2831 E. Grand from Town Partners. The building houses Stachurski's video production business, Eightfold Productions, but he regularly allows others to use his studio at low or no cost. 

A graduate of Southwest Solutions' ProsperUS program for low- and moderate-income, immigrant and minority entrepreneurs, he is planning to open a coffee shop in Eightfold's building this summer. Stachurski hopes the shop, named "The Gathering," will be a go-to spot "for the people who live and work here." He's also planning to create a darkroom in the building for local photographers to use for free.

"We didn't want to create a space where the existing neighborhood didn't benefit from it," Stachurski says. "That was our biggest fear from day one: to make something that was kickass but not usable to everyone."

The rapidity with which numerous businesses and developers have flocked to Milwaukee Junction raises questions for some about how the neighborhood may change.

"I just hope it doesn't turn into Royal Oak," Wilson says, noting that his patrons "really do look at Kiesling as that neighborhood spot" and he hopes it can stay that way.

"It probably won't, and that's fine," he says. "I know things are going to change, but I hope they change for the better."

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
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