Meet a Curbed Detroit contributor: architecture critic Kelly Ellsworth. From time to time, she brings us detailed arguments about local development, buildings, marketing? or whatever else strikes her fancy. And she's quite fancy.
Real estate in downtown Detroit neighborhoods is hot and getting hotter, especially the rental market. The Broderick Tower is something like 115% pre-leased and rumor has it Dan Gilbert is fast-tracking an apartment high-rise on the Hudson's site. Lafayette Park may have some apartments available in the Towers but don't even think about renting in Midtown or Corktown, there's no room in the inn. Hubbard Farms is gaining speed and even quiet little West Village is on people's radar now.
Obviously there is room for growth in these neighborhoods but smart boys and girls keep their eyes on the horizon, because Midtown isn't going to be the same kind of cool once Whole Foods opens its doors. So what's next? Well, look northward, because what could be Detroit's next great neighborhood is a quick jaunt up Woodward to McNichols: the Palmer Park apartment district.
The potential for this neighborhood is not news to anyone interested in the architecture or the history of the city of Detroit. But with the attention of the media focused like a laser on downtown, it's time to amp up the conversation about a Detroit neighborhood that absolutely needs to be saved.
The story of the decline of Palmer Park is a sad one that will pluck the heartstrings of any urbanist. Construction started in the the 1920's as housing for upper middle class families. It was a relatively exclusive, very Jewish neighborhood until the early 1970's when the Jewish population started moving out and the gay community started moving in. The gay community thrived there for a while until the 80's when, in possibly the sole example in 20th century American history of gays DE-gentrifying a gorgeous historic neighborhood, an explosion of crime led to an exodus just across 8 Mile Road. [Ed note: Hence, the gay Ferndale we now know and love.]
Palmer Park stayed intact, if increasingly troubled, through the 90's and the 00's, but it was that day about three years ago when the Palmer Lodge apartments – the big Tudor-style building right along Woodward – was suddenly boarded up when you knew something drastic was going to have to happen or that neighborhood was a goner.
Ultimately, this story of decline is best told in pictures, and I invite you to examine this outstanding Palmer Park Flickr photoset from 2007 and contrast it with our intrepid editor's photoset from 2012. Five years might as well be a generation as far as decline in Detroit is concerned.
Fortunately, while the neighborhood is at its nadir right now, has many strengths. Constructed from the 1920's through the 1960's, it is a mind-blowing collection of apartment buildings encompassing Tudor, Spanish, Moorish, Art Deco and Modernist building styles and while many buildings are vacant, no building seems so far gone that it need be demolished. The location, wedged between the Detroit Golf Club and Palmer Park itself, lends itself to great recreation, and the wonderful People for Palmer Park are doing an admirable job of keeping the park beautiful and full of activity. Most of its neighbors (University District, Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest and Green Acres) are diverse, solid, upscale and have weathered the housing crisis quite nicely.
Aside from being gorgeous, the neighborhood is quiet; once you are within its confines street noise disappears. If light rail ever makes it up Woodward then this neighborhood will be prime time – and even if it's only bus rapid transit or, frankly, the DOT bus – it's still just a straight shot down Woodward to get downtown (or a ten minute drive down nearby I-75). It has potential to be great housing for students at U of D-Mercy a half-mile up McNichols, and the amenities of Ferndale and Royal Oak are just minutes away. And who wouldn't want to live right across the street from La Dolce Vita? The good news is investment is already in the air. Just two days after my last visit to the neighborhood Model D reported on the renovation of La Vogue apartments by Shelborne Development, a group that already has plans to redevelop several other buildings in the district, including the Palmer Lodge apartments on Woodward (also admire their handiwork in the Jefferson-Chalmers area near Grosse Pointe and soon in New Center). And of course the pre-recession condo conversion of the Albert Kahn Walbri Court apartment building facing the park is a true highlight.
Now, of course, there are hurdles. Most of these empty buildings will receive a total overhaul on their interiors, losing the incredible architectural details of the apartments themselves. The La Vogue renovation was described as a “gut job rehab” and the others under construction appear to be in the same boat. There's only so much you can do with sub-market rate housing and Detroit's scrapping problem (although I would like to point out that you could install something other than vertical blinds, although 1987 was the last time the neighborhood was desirable so I suppose it's a historically correct design choice). And once these apartments fill up, parking will be a problem, as it was as far back as the 80's.
And the crime problem – it's still a consideration. On one of my visits the private security guard for the neighborhood approached to walk me to my car, telling me about hold-ups and a recent shooting along the way. And I was having such a nice visit! One colleague recently proposed that the way to save the neighborhood was to make it a gated community, controlling access and tearing down some of the architecturally insignificant buildings (and there are a few mixed in) to build parking decks. In a city like Detroit any proposal that sounds that elitist would certainly raise a few hackles, but you have to admit living there wouldn't suck, and would probably be a bargain.
Other Detroit neighborhoods have been defined by the people investing in them when the investing was good: what is downtown without Dan Gilbert or Corktown without the Cooleys? So take note: this is the absolute definition of getting in on the ground floor. Pull a rabbit out of this hat and not only will you save a neighborhood that needs saving, you'll have the best neighborhood in the entire city of Detroit. And renters? Keep an eye on this real estate. Do your homework before signing a lease, but trust me when I tell you moving here over the next few years will give you not only an incredible housing deal, but will impress even the most jaded Corktown hipster. —Kelly Ellsworth