The Transformation Continues

How do you bring about a turnaround? Troll a few Web forums, attend a few lectures, read the local columnists' weekly offerings, and it seems everyone and their online alter ego has got an opinion.

But how about less talky-talky and more action? Right now, there are huge projects under way that will pave the way for more development, and, possibly most importantly, these projects will change the way we feel about and use the Motor City.

Here are five such projects: the East Riverfront, the Book-Cadillac rehab, the new Rosa Parks Transit Center, Eastern Market's face-lift and a new system of greenways.

As you take in this list, bear in mind that it was challenging to narrow this to five. By no means are these the biggest or the only stories of a transforming Detroit. Plans for TechTown, the former Tiger Stadium, downtown cleaning crews, the old Avenue of Fashion and the Port Authority will be huge.

The city's transformation has started, and these five represent just some of the projects that are ushering it along.

Along the river

You don't have to be a card-carrying member of a Detroit booster club to get excited about the progress along the East Riverfront.

Developers are proudly showing off sketches of shops, restaurants, condos, townhomes, lofts and pretty people walking the riverfront streets. Meanwhile, crews are out there hammering away, making visible progress on one key asset to the new riverfront — the RiverWalk that will span from the Ambassador Bridge to just past Belle Isle.

The work on the RiverWalk — the eastern portion will be 75 percent complete by the year's end — is a sign that things are going to change here, and fast.

"There’s major visible construction under way," says Faye Nelson of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. "It is a transformative project, and it’s real and it’s happening."

The pedestrian and bike pathway is one infrastructure improvement that's making further riverfront development more attractive. The $250 million trail is also transformative because it's brought together a huge variety of players to make it happen.

Matt Cullen, GM's director of economic development and enterprise services and Riverfront Conservancy co-chairman, says the project has brought dollars into the city from foundations that haven’t invested here in years. And Nelson says that it has taken cooperation from the private sector, as well as city, state and federal government to move it forward. "This project really demonstrates that public-private relationship can really exist and be successful," Nelson says, adding that the list of partners "is continuing to grow every single day."

The entrepreneurial plans for the banks of the Detroit River are also moving forward.

Dominic Pangborn's Asian Village concept will be open this fall, with a mix of cultural events, fine dining, an upscale bar and lounge, a sushi bar and marketplace.

Industrialist and ex-Piston Dave Bing has enlisted a virtual Michigan sports hall of fame — Derrick Coleman, Joe Dumars, Jalen Rose, Isiah Thomas and Chris Webber — to invest in his project that will put 110 condos on the riverfront.

Other plans include:

• Dwight Belyue's @water Lofts, a $430 million, 480-unit, mixed-use project.
• Jerome Bettis/Chuck Betters' $25 million, 64-unit mixed-use condos.
• GM's 13-acre commercial, residential, retail, office and entertainment project east of the Renaissance Center, to be developed by Chicago-based Mesirow Stein Real Estate Inc. and Morningside Equities Group.

Plus, George Jackson, president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said that the city would call for proposals for additional riverfront sites along Riopelle soon (it has three of its seven sites left to bid out).

He said the riverfront is going to serve as a model for other projects in the city, and it's finally going to take advantage of a city resource that's been undervalued for decades.

"It's a complete transformation of an area that all of us who have been around Detroit for a while – and especially native Detroiters — have said, 'Boy, I wish we could do something with that riverfront.'"

Another role model

The Book-Cadillac redevelopment also will be a model for projects to come. For days last week, lawyers and clients were in the Buhl Building signing mounds of papers to close the Book-Cadillac hotel redevelopment deal.

"It really is happening," says Dave Blaszkiewicz, president of the Detroit Investment Fund, speaking last Friday, a day after closing on his part of the deal.

The closing itself is remarkable. With 17 extremely complicated layers of financing, the Book-Caddy deal is a chance to show that Detroit can get major projects done. It will also serve as a sign to the general public that the turnaround can and is happening in downtown Detroit. "I think that is going to be one of the projects that will provide evidence to others who are not in the trenches," Blaszkiewicz says.

The deal wouldn't have happened without massive amounts of cooperation, especially from the city and its development arms, he says. "The city, ultimately, has been extremely helpful," Blaszkiewicz says, singling out Jackson and his DEGC for their support.

Once all the ink is dry, Cleveland-based Ferchill Group will start the physical work on the $176 million rehab of the 1924 hotel. The hotel will house 66 luxury condominiums, and the Westin Book-Cadillac with 455 hotel rooms. Work should start within a few weeks and take at least a couple years.

Transit, transit, transit

Also watch for work ramping up soon in Times Square. The Detroit Economic Growth Corp. recently called for bids for crews to start demolition work needed to build the $15 million Rosa Park Transit Center.

The 25,000-square-foot center, to be funded with federal and state money, will take up two city blocks in an area bounded by Grand River, Michigan, Park Place, Cass and Times Square Street. It's right near a People Mover Station.

A cool-looking bus stop (the Chene Park-like canopy design is pretty sweet) ain't a Detroit to Ann Arbor high-speed train, to be sure, but it's a strong endorsement for improving what we've got, and a statement that there is a place for transit in Motown.

Plus, this project bodes well for Capitol Park, site of the temporary bus depot. When the big buses move out, developers say those with their eyes on expanding the Woodward vibe outward will hit Capitol Park next.

"Capitol Park, if you look at the scale of the buildings, look at the layout of those streets, if you look at the park — that is just a prime candidate for a residential neighborhood with mixed-use housing and retail," Blaszkiewicz says.

Everything's gone green

Meanwhile, the dream of a greener, more pedestrian-friendly city is inching toward reality.

Landscaped trails linking Detroit neighborhoods and stretching to adjoining suburbs are being planned, mapped out and in the early stages of development. Greenways projects are planned for:
• Corktown-Mexicantown;
• Southwest Detroit-East Dearborn;
• Lyndon Avenue in Northwest Detroit;
• Midtown;
• Hamtramck;
• Conner Creek on the Detroit’s Eastside;
• Electric Avenue in Southwest Detroit.

Greening of Detroit and the city are working together to coordinate the projects.

One of the most intriguing greenways is the trail being developed in the Dequindre Cut, a stretch of former railway line that once ran 25-feet below ground level from Eastern Market to the riverfront. Work on the Cut has quietly begun and is expected to be finished this year.

When finished, the Dequindre Cut will be a non-motorized “people mover” linking the Detroit River, the RiverWalk and Tri-Centennial State Park with Eastern Market. A spoke to Midtown, including access to Detroit’s Cultural Center and Wayne State University, and a long-range plan to link the Hamtramck trail to the Cut are also being planned.

The Cut holds sentimental value for lovers of Detroit outsider art. It is strewn with paintings, sculptures and bombed with graffiti documenting a slice of local social history. It has become, unofficially, one of the city’s few public art parks and is a favorite destination for urban explorers and camera-toting bloggers.

When it is finished, one half of the one-mile trail will have separate biking and walking paths and will include lighting and security cameras. The other half will be left in natural grasses and reserved for potential future rail transit.

Eastern Market

Ask Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick what he thinks will be the next big neighborhood to boom for the City of Detroit, and he doesn't pause. "Eastern Market," he told Model D recently.

The going plan is to make Eastern Market a seven-day market, give the facility a $17 million facelift, encourage new retail in the area, and assign management to a nonprofit. Kate Beebe, one of the principle architects behind the plan, says the plan would make the market a bigger attraction.

“A survey that was done on Eastern Market shoppers found that the number one reason for people coming to the market was that they like the urban mix,” she says. “Food was the number two reason. ... We want to create even more reasons for 'foodies,' for people who would drive five miles for that special item, to come to the Eastern Market.”

A different picture of Detroit

Green spaces, public/private cooperation, transit, investment, new housing — put it together and a different picture of Detroit starts to emerge. Yet, this is no time for complacency.

There's constant speculation about luring the next big company to put a headquarters downtown; ideas are brewing about things like building a creative district of shops, restaurants, studios and work space; and passionate pleas are being made for improving transit in a meaningful way.

"We're not done with downtown yet, as you know," Blaszkiewicz says, with a measure of caution. "I'd hate to see us lose our focus on that. But we've made tremendous progress."

Writers Walter Wasacz and Glen Morren contributed to this story.


Transit Center Conceptual Drawing



Book-Cadillac Hotel

Bus at Capitol Park

Dequindre Cut Greenway

Eastern Market

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger