A neighborhood perspective: How The Platform is thinking differently about Detroit development

Shortly after developers Peter Cummings and Dietrich Knoer partnered on purchasing the New Center's iconic Fisher and Kahn buildings in 2015, Knoer extended a rather unusual invitation to Cummings: a 4:30 a.m. breakfast at Eastern Market.
Cummings agreed to the absurdly early meal. "And I concluded that Dietrich realized the only person he knew that was crazy enough to say yes to that invitation was me," says Cummings. "So we're kindred spirits, in a way."
Last May Cummings and Knoer launched their own development company, The Platform. The philosophy they've followed so far isn't crazy, though it is somewhat unconventional in Detroit's current development scene. One of The Platform's chief values is inclusivity—developing while respecting the character of the neighborhoods the company moves into.

"We think unless the recovery embraces a broader group of the population, then you're going to find in the Woodward corridor that it will be sort of a pyrrhic victory and eventually we'll pay the price for that," Cummings says.
That theory plays out in numerous ways in The Platform's work so far. The company is dedicated to avoiding demolition as much as possible, and to including what Knoer describes as "an efficient ratio" of affordable housing in its residential developments. 
The Platform is also focused on developing clusters of properties with a thoughtful eye towards interacting well with the big picture of the existing neighborhoods that surround them. That requires a sense of intentionality—another key value for The Platform—which stands in contrast to the project-to-project mentality common among many major Detroit developers.

Dietrich Knoer, president and CEO of The Platform

Peter Cummings, executive chairman of The Platform

"What we wanted to do was, literally, create a platform," Cummings says. "We wanted to create a program where we had commitments not to individual buildings, but to neighborhoods. I think Detroit is in the kind of place in its evolution right now where you need to have a neighborhood perspective."
The other unique element of The Platform's approach has been the neighborhoods it's chosen to invest in. In addition to the Fisher and Kahn buildings, The Platform has other holdings in the New Center and adjacent Milwaukee Junction. But outside the New Center area—a relatively safe bet for development, standing to capitalize on radiating growth from downtown and Midtown—The Platform has also initiated projects in the considerably less fashionable areas of Islandview, Fitzgerald, and Brightmoor.
"I'm seeing them in good conventional places," says Arthur Jemison, director of housing and revitalization for the city of Detroit. "But I'm also seeing them in great unconventional places that matter a lot to the city."
Developing buildings, developing community
Cummings says those more unconventional projects are rooted in The Platform's identity as "a for-profit business that has a community development perspective." In Brightmoor, The Platform last year bought up five properties along Grand River Avenue for a grand total of $80,000. Cummings says that investment will build on a longstanding relationship between Brightmoor and the Fisher Family Foundation, of which his wife Julie Fisher Cummings is vice-chair.
"We're doing this entirely with social capital," he says. "It's a small deal, but in the scale of that community, it could be transformational."
Last year, The Platform responded to a city request for proposals in Fitzgerald, a neighborhood in northwest Detroit. Dubbed the "Fitzgerald Revitalization Project," The Platform and Century Partners will rehabilitate 115 vacant houses, build a two-acre park, and turn 192 vacant lots into gardens. The freshly rehabbed homes will certainly bring neighborhood property values up, but Cummings says they'll remain in an affordable price range, selling for $90,000-$100,000 or renting for $750-$850 a month.
"The trick, and it's not a trick that has been pulled off successfully in many cities, is to create a good mix of incomes living in the same neighborhood and to enhance neighborhoods without displacing people," he says. "We're very mindful of these things. We'll probably make mistakes along the way. We won't get it quite right. But we'll learn as we go and get it better."
In Islandview, The Platform is planning a farmers market on the site of the former Big Boy on Jefferson just across from the entry to Belle Isle. (Knoer notes that Big Boy owner Michael Curis chose to close the popular restaurant before selling to The Platform.) The Platform owns one other site in the neighborhood and is working to acquire more. Knoer says Islandview will be a strong example of The Platform's belief in inclusive community living.

An old nursing home acquired by The Platform in the neighborhood of Islandview
"There's existing structures on these sites that we want to preserve," he says. "The community is looking for ways to have more amenities and have places where community can grow."
Rev. Barry Randolph, pastor at Church of the Messiah and an Islandview community leader, radiates positivity about The Platform's involvement in his neighborhood so far. He expresses particular appreciation that representatives of the company have organized and attended community meetings to discuss plans for the neighborhood with residents.
"They weren't talking about just coming in and doing some type of development," Randolph says. "They asked the opinion of the people who already lived here. ... It was also about the development of the community as people, not just bricks and mortar."
A new take on New Center
Cummings, Knoer, and their team are also applying an innovative approach to development in New Center. Rather than just focusing on New Center proper, they're also interested in the adjacent Milwaukee Junction, TechTown, and North End neighborhoods. Cummings expects the four neighborhoods to be particularly enlivened by the recent opening of a QLine stop at their point of convergence.
"We see these four neighborhoods as each having a separate personality, a separate history," he says. "And we see each of them as presenting different kinds of opportunities."

Site of the eventual Baltimore Station development
In addition to two other TechTown properties, The Platform is redeveloping Wayne State's former Criminal Justice Building into a mixed-use development that will include housing, retail, and an art gallery. The company has four properties in Milwaukee Junction, where it recently broke ground on its Baltimore Station project at Baltimore and Woodward. Knoer notes that that development will build on multiple existing nearby amenities: Detroit's Amtrak station, a QLine stop—and a White Castle.
"I'm only half joking about the White Castle," he chuckles. "We embraced the White Castle as opposed to trying to hide it."
The Platform development manager Clarke Lewis notes that Midtown Detroit Inc. president Sue Mosey helped direct The Platform's attention to sites in the New Center area, like Baltimore Station and The Platform's forthcoming development at Third and Grand. Mosey says The Platform's approach will "add a lot of value" to the area.
"We're thrilled to have other partners doing similar work, because there's so much to do there and there's more and more people coming in all the time," Mosey says.
Meanwhile, a $100 million renovation is underway at the project that got The Platform started in the first place—the Fisher and Kahn buildings. The Fisher has been the subject of particular public attention recently, as The Platform hosted a halfpipe and a Flint Eastwood show in the building. On the business end, Knoer says things are looking up as well. The Platform has signed 23,000 square feet of new leases in the Fisher.

Interior of the Fisher Building
"It's not just happening," Knoer says. "It's happening because we have focused the last 15 months on repositioning it, creating a certain dialogue and conversation about it."
Given the major moves The Platform has made in just its first year of existence, it's hard not to wonder what's next for the company. Knoer isn't ready to say just yet, but unsurprisingly, The Platform is just getting started.
"[New Center] isn't the only place where we can work," Knoer says. "We would like to expand, but certainly not beyond Detroit's city limits. We're very focused on Detroit and will remain as such."

All 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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