Author: Kirk Pinho
The big things were supposed to be done by now.
Three years ago this month, the concept of “place-making” in downtown Detroit was officially introduced with a plan to turn the central business district into a pedestrian and shopping haven using a community development concept aimed at boosting a community’s quality of life to attract and retain businesses and workers.
What was intended to be completed by the end of 2015 is a checklist of the projects and ambitious plans the city still needs done: completion of the $137 million M-1 Rail project, now slated to be completed in the first quarter next year; the redevelopment of the 2-acre formerHudson’s department store site, with a development plan not yet submitted to the city; and a pair of complex projects that would reimagine two key city arteries: Woodward and Jefferson avenues.
Those projects remain in the works at varying levels of completion.
But other progress has been made in smaller ways.
To be sure, the downtown atmosphere is better than it was in March 2013 when the plan was unveiled, and more is to be done this year. Those things include redevelopment projects, art installations, new events and urban redesign plans and others.
“The plan that was outlined was a guideline to get us to a place we want to be,” said AJ Weiner, managing director in the Royal Oak office of Jones Lang LaSalle. “We would all agree the environment is better two, five and 10 years ago. We are on the right direction.”
Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC says that more than 1,000 free events are now held annually in four targeted parks downtown — Campus Martius, Beatrice Buck Park, Capitol Park and Grand Circus Park — and that more are expected this year.
“We will have more and more diverse events and place-making activations with more external public and private partners as well as more of a focus on arts and cultural programming,” the company said.
And progress is being made on those big-ticket items, costing hundreds of millions in public and private dollars. They include turning Woodward into an esplanade and promenade between Jefferson to the south and Grand Circus Park to the north, and making crossing Jefferson to Hart Plaza easier and more conducive to a walkable downtown.
Both considered more pedestrian-friendly urban planning options, the esplanade — a park-like area, possibly including bike lanes, created by widening the existing median — would be south of Campus Martius. The promenade — consisting of glass café projections, outdoor cafés and kiosks — would be between Campus Martius and Grand Circus Park.
“This (plan) was to lay out the framework for a broad plan of infrastructure, place-making, retailing and so on, but we don’t ever expect to be done” with improvements, said Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Rock Ventures, one of the financial backers of the plans. “We want to improve it all the time.”
So, many of the plan’s facets, described by its backers in shorthand as LQC, meaning lighter, quicker, cheaper, have been implemented, including in Grand Circus Park, said Bob Gregory, president of the Detroit 300 Conservancy, an affiliate of the Downtown Detroit Partnershipworking on the place-making efforts.
“You can go back three or four years ago, and people felt very uncomfortable, whether because of crime, dope or overgrown landscaping,” Gregory said. “These are not big, skyscraping kinds of projects, but we went in there, working off that plan and opened up the pathways, removed the hedges, adding programming and chairs and umbrellas. People are coming back there.”
In the next year or so, also look for a redesign of Capitol Park to be unveiled to soften the downtown enclave with wider sidewalks, new plantings, bike lanes and other improvements, Gregory said. Significant redevelopment of some of the area’s buildings is also expected.
Efforts by Rock, the DDP and others — the city of Detroit, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy and others among them — will continue. New retailers will come and make splashes for city shoppers, including the soon-to-open Nike Inc.community store on Woodward. Designer John Varvatos, a Detroit native, also opened a Woodward store.
Dan Mullen, executive vice president of Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services LLC, said the new activity downtown has been a key part of recruiting new tenants to Bedrock’s buildings.
“Almost every single one of our tenants feels that way,” he said. “Fifth Third and Ally Financialwere thrilled to be next to the programming in the park and the urban beach and everything else.”
In addition, art installations downtown are seemingly unveiled weekly, with more to come in different pockets of the central core. Walk around a Gilbert-owned building and odds are that you’ll notice something new every time — a mural here, a piano there, a temporary installation somewhere else.
Last year, an installation gave space for people to write the one thing they wanted to do before they die on the side of a Woodward building. A massive Shepard Fairey mural was installed on the side of the One Campus Martius building, formerly the Compuware Corp. headquarters now owned by Bedrock and Detroit-based Meridian Health. Last week, Bedrock announced a new Vault of Midnight Inc. comic book store in Gilbert’s The Z mixed-use development and a new “experiential entertainment” venue called Escape the Room at 1030 Brush St.
But urban planning academicians say that the timelines three years ago for completion of the large-scale projects were too ambitious, with perhaps too small of a group tackling them, with perhaps too many other things on their plates — particularly given how rapidly Bedrock’s real estate portfolio has grown in the past three years and other efforts that Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. and Rock Ventures, is involved in.
“Yes, you look to the north and take a chunk of Brush Park, and development of some stuff on the west side in Corktown, and they’ve got a number of ideas that haven’t come to fruition,” said Robin Boyle, chairman of the Wayne State University Department of Urban Studies and Planning.
Bedrock is one of the investment partners in a $70 million redevelopment of 8.4 acres of Brush Park into a new mixed-use development with residential and retail space, and earlier this year purchased a pair of Corktown buildings at 1700 W. Fort St. and 1681-1749 W. Lafayette Blvd. from The Display Group. Quicken also opened its 66,000-square-foot data center in Corktown in June.
“Then there is another group working on some neighborhoods, some of the housing initiatives. You could argue that the Bedrock empire has seen a little bit of mission creep in downtown Detroit and you could argue that they are taking their toys and spreading them too widely — which is potentially good, but then you don’t have that delivery in the central core.”
Bedrock’s real estate portfolio is now more than 85 properties — buildings, parking decks and surface parking lots — totaling more than 14 million square feet, largely downtown, acquired over the past five years, according to the most recent Quicken Loans tally. The investment is more than $2.2 billion, according to Quicken.
The M-1 Rail project is a 3.3-mile streetcar loop under construction between Larned Street downtown and Grand Boulevard in the New Center area. It is scheduled for a first-quarter completion next year.
A redevelopment plan for the Hudson’s site is now due by next month after several deadline extensions to submit it. The development is expected to include at least 225,000 square feet of mixed-use space, at least 250 residential units and at least 900 parking spaces.
Gilbert said in a December interview with Crain’s that work continues.”We’re working hard. We have to get it right. We want to make sure it’s a unique, special destination, something that Detroiters and visitors can be proud of,” he said.
Work also continues on the Woodward esplanade, Gregory said.
South of the planned M-1 station downtown, planning for the esplanade is on pause so further planning of Hart Plaza and Jefferson Avenue can be completed. North of the M-1 station, work continues studying, planning and designing the initial phase of turning that portion of Woodward north to Grand Circus Park into an esplanade.
Planning to make crossing Jefferson Avenue to go to and from Hart Plaza is also ongoing, Gregory said.
June Manning Thomas, the Centennial Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, said that while the groups spearheading the place-making and retail efforts are perhaps “even a little bit ahead” of where she expected them to be on the overall plan, perhaps they didn’t quite grasp all the headwinds they would face on a number of fronts.
“I think everyone is kind of new at development in downtown Detroit,” she said. “It’s not greenfield development in Sterling Heights. You’ve got a bureaucracy that is probably at one of its lowest levels in terms of staffing. Then you have permitting that you have to go through after a whole wave of pink-slipping that started about four years ago or even before that.”
Original post on: Crain’s Detroit Business