Drive down any of the main spokes in Detroit and you’re likely to come across groupings of now-vacant buildings—industrial, storage, automotive—which once worked together in their respective neighborhoods.
Past Woodbridge and the Grand River Creative Corridor, you’ll see an example of this now coming back to life. To the left stand various Quonset huts—now residential rentals—and on the right, a park has taken shape between older buildings with new purpose.
In the past four years, many four to eight story apartment buildings have risen in Detroit to meet the demand for more market-rate apartments. In Core City, a different development has taken raw materials—galvanized steel, a parking lot, industrial buildings—to create a whole new district out of mostly vacant spaces. And while it’s not going to solve pressing housing problems in the city, its approach could at least inspire other developers to think more creatively about placemaking.
Much of this redevelopment is the brainchild of Philip Kafka, who started buying land in the area in 2013. Originally from Texas, he founded a successful billboard company in New York City, then started investing in Detroit. Kafka’s also behind the restaurant Takoi, and with his development group Prince Concepts, has recently purchased more properties around the city.
It started with the Quonset huts. Since the community, now called True North, has formed off of Grand River, the developers and architect, Edwin Chan of EC3, have been recognized internationally with design awards. The huts come in different sizes and layouts, with landscaping adding greenery to the small residential community.
Across the street, various buildings and plots have transformed into new spaces. These oddly-shaped buildings—which sit along Grand River Avenue between St. Leo’s Church and the Grand Trunk Rail line at Warren—were built in the 1920s and 1950s.
Over the years they’ve served various functions, from a radiator shop to a grocery store. Now, as each renovation is completed, they once again work cohesively together.
A building dubbed Sawtooth houses a commissary kitchen and private event space, Astro Coffee Roaster, and the newly opened Ochre Bakery. Another building, called the Pie, sits at the angular corner of Grand River and Warren avenues. Prince Concepts has opened up some of the building, and it now houses Lafayette American Ad Agency and Casting de Khrysophia jewelry designer.
A new restaurant, Magnet, will open nearby in what was an auto repair shop.
(Not everyone has had a smooth transition: Kafka and a longtime boxing gym tenant have recently had disputes over rent.)
And in between these two buildings, on what was for decades a parking lot, a new park has bloomed, with locust and dogwood trees, as well as benches repurposed from walls of a nearby building and remnants of the firehouse that once stood there. Prince Concepts worked with Landscape Architect Julie Bergman of D.I.R.T. Studio to transform the pavement into an 8,000-square-foot urban park; it officially opened May 10.
The Powerplant Building (formerly Architectural Salvage Warehouse which has since moved to a new location in Islandview), will serve as a covered extension of the park. In warmer weather, a garage door can open allowing local vendors inside to set up like a bazaar, selling local goods. It’s slated to be finished by the end of August.
“The idea is that you can use the things you buy in the public space of the building or in the park, too,” says Kafka. “Read, play chess, have a little picnic.”
But it’s the building now called 5K, which sits between Warren Avenue and the Grand Trunk rail line, that could be one of the more unusual and inspired transformations in the area. Built as a grocery store in the 1950s, future plans call for a complete reimagining of the space.
On one long side of the building, eight apartments will somehow fit, four across and two rows high. Commercial spaces and a newspaper stand facing Warren Avenue will be added to the other side. Prince Concepts is working with Undecorated Architects on this project.
“Instead of trying to bring a utilitarian building with no significant character back to life,” Kafka says, “we wanted to use existing assets.”
Describing it as “a maze of residential and commercial spaces that are both cozy and ceremonial,” the building will keep the terrazzo floors and 20-foot ceilings of the 13,500-square-foot structure intact. Designs by architect Ish Rafiuddin call for cutting off sections of the roof, which already needed to be replaced, to create courtyards within the buildings that let in more natural light.
He likens the building to the one in Eastern Market which now houses Trinosophes—if the roof was cut out and trees filled an interior courtyard.
“We’re taking this project so far because our renovation projects are about communicating possibility,” he says. “What’s the most we can make with what the past has given us? How can we use the assets, but also improve and enhance what we’ve been given? What is actually possible? We are not interested, as much, in what is simply easy.”
Work is still underway next to True North. A house just south of the huts is currently being renovated, and next to that, a flower farm will soon bloom. And we haven’t seen the last changes for the Quonset huts—a longer, sushi-like row called Caterpillar could be built in the future.
When Kafka talks about all these myriad changes in the area, he speaks in grandiose, but inspired ways. “My overall vision is to create a neighborhood that allows current residents, future residents, and myself the space and place to live a life that is a work of art—a life that is a personal expression,” says Kafka. “That’s the magic of Detroit.”
The term “mixed-use” is a catchall in development. But here, a lot of thought has been put into how buildings can work with the space that’s available.