In 2017, Mayor Mike Duggan announced that Detroit would be the first city in the country to completely rebuild a struggling neighborhood. With the help of developers and funders, the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project would turn the northwest Detroit neighborhood from a place with hundreds of vacant properties to a vibrant, blight-free area that could be enjoyed by new and longtime residents alike.
The $12 million to $15 million project called for 115 homes to be renovated, 200 vacant lots to be cleared, a park and greenway to be built, and parts of a nearby commercial strip to be redeveloped. The Kresge Foundation has also pitched in millions of dollars to the Live6 Alliance, a local nonprofit that services the area, and for corridor improvements through the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund.
It was all to be finished by fall 2019.
But as the completion date nears, the main goal of the project—rehabbing vacant homes—is just getting started in earnest. Instead of 115 rehabbed homes, six are complete, with another seven that are supposed to be done by the end of summer.
But, the developers argue, that doesn’t mean the project has been a disappointment. Rather, an unprecedented project like this takes patience, careful planning, coordination between different partners—and yes, some mistakes were made. But in actuality, signs of progress are everywhere.
David Alade is a co-founder of Century Partners, one of the two firms along with The Platform that formed Fitz Forward, the joint venture handling home rehabs and lots. He says that any disappointment in the project is due to unrealistic expectations—when the timeline was announced in 2017, it wasn’t set by him or his team.
“There probably was too much optimism at the beginning,” he says. “That you could do something that’s never been done before, in a neighborhood that had never received this kind of attention, and do it at lightning fast speed.”
The scale of the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project is truly daunting. Beyond the raw numbers, there have been additional challenges in execution. Almost all the homes require a gut rehab—new windows, walls, flooring, HVAC, electrical, plumbing. Clearing titles for each property has taken time, too.
Also, margins are thin. The city sold lots and homes to Fitz Forward for $300 and $1,000, respectively. Homes in the first phase listed for between $60,000 and $90,000, but rehabbing has cost around $80,000 per home. Most future homes will be listed for $100,000 and up.
Due to all the challenges, Alade actually prefers a slower approach. “This is not a project you can rush because of the trauma that’s developed here over decades,” he says, referring to years of disinvestment, residents leaving the neighborhood, and the slow decay of homes. “We want to have a transformative effect on this neighborhood, but speed doesn’t help the people who have been here the longest.”
The developers used the first phase of the project for “information gathering”—getting to know people, attending community meetings, understanding needs—and restoring the neighborhood in other ways that will have an impact on the entire community.
In that department, the numbers are more encouraging. According to Fitz Forward, it’s cleared 140 lots, boarded up 92 homes, demolished another 24, and created 20 meadows by planting wildflowers, installing seating, and putting up partial fencing.
There’s also the completed Ella Fitzgerald Park, which has a mosaic mural designed by Hubert Massey, a basketball court, playground, and painted symbols on the street designed to slow traffic. A playscape across three lots on Turner Street funded by Kaboom! is supposed to be completed this summer, and a 0.5-mile greenway connecting Marygrove College and the University of Detroit Mercy should be done this fall.
Some of the first homebuyers have started contributing to the neighborhood as well.
Two are I’Sha and Alex Schultz-Spradlin, who bought a home on San Juan Street in November 2018. Prior to learning about Fitz Forward, the couple had been looking to buy for around two years with little luck. They’re millennials working the city, but don’t have high-paying jobs.
Their 850-square-foot rehabbed home cost $90,000. Thanks to a $1.5 million community development block grant, it’s part of around a dozen homes in the neighborhood reserved for households making less than $45,000 a year.
The house suits the couple, who weren’t interested in living in a trendy part of town—they’re interested in being neighbors. I’Sha was even nominated for president of the local College Core Block Club, an umbrella community group for other Fitzgerald block clubs. She stresses that she didn’t want to come in and take over the block club, but her youth and willingness to “run around” made the other members feel like she’d do a good job.
“It’s very neighborly here,” I’Sha says. “Our neighbors were the ones that helped us move in.”
Relations between the developers and residents haven’t been without tension. A July 2018 article in the Detroit Free Press referenced multiple issues with the project. Writer Joe Guillen said the city claimed there had been 40 meetings with neighbors before Fitz Forward was chosen as the developer, but the community disagreed.
It has become a point of contention among residents, and was discussed at a community meeting. City officials stand behind their tally, saying the number includes block club meetings with city employees, city-led neighborhood walks and “pop-up events,” such as a barbecue on vacant lots in the neighborhood.
Gaston Nash, who is from Detroit and has either owned property or lived in Fitzgerald for about a decade, has been a consistent critic of the city, saying that it had already determined what it would do in the neighborhood before meeting with residents. However, he’s been encouraged by the project’s recent progress.
“I think [the Fitz Forward team] has made efforts to reach out to the community,” he says. “It was not as strong an effort at first, but it’s improving. They’re getting better at it.”
Nash has also noticed the increasing number of clean lots and homes being worked on, but he’d still like regular meetings with residents, especially now that the project’s timeline has shifted. “I hope they come back to the community,” he says. “Yes, they did it with the mayor one time recently. But I hope we continuously have those types of conversations to work on this neighborhood.”
The project does most of its outreach through Century Forward, a nonprofit created by Fitz Forward that is working to help new neighbors and longtime residents live together harmoniously. It manages the meadows and lots, and tries to strengthen social bonds in the community.
Century Forward Executive Director Michelle Bolofer, who grew up in neighboring Bagley, says the organization conducted interviews with residents and did a neighborhood asset study to find out what kind of resources are needed and how people can access then. The nonprofit then presented local block clubs with a series of recommendations for improving security, getting funding for home repairs and utilities, and accessing job and workforce training opportunities.
“As you bring in new faces and voices into the community, there needs to be an infrastructure in place to make sure the new residents are finding their way with existing residents,” Bolofer says. “And that existing residents are feeling the benefit of the revitalization as well.”
Community and office space HomeBase, which opened in April on nearby McNichols Road, should contribute to improved information sharing as well. The Live6 Alliance has an office there and the city will use it as an occasional satellite office to update the neighborhood on local developments. And community groups can host meetings there—for free.
Fitz Forward also recently partnered with Brilliant Detroit to open a community and early learning center in a recently-renovated 2,000-square-foot home on Prairie Street.
The developer’s lack of local hiring has been a complaint as well. Alade told the Free Press last year they’d hired between five and 10 residents. Now, he says, they’ve been able to grow that number to over 40—two full-time—to clean up lots, board up homes, do demolition, paint, install drywall, and other jobs.
In some cases, to hire residents, Fitz Forward had to help workers set up bank accounts (and get the bank to waive its monthly fee for users who have less than $1,500 in their account). When requested, they’ve also paid people every day instead of on a bi-weekly basis.
“For people with structural barriers to entering the workforce, we’ve been working with institutions to break [those barriers] down,” Alade says. “If the people that have been here the longest don’t economically benefit from our project, then our project has been a failure.”
Chris Greer is one of those longtime residents. He grew up in Fitzgerald and now lives in his childhood home. Since 2018, he’s been working full time on the Fitz Forward crew rehabbing homes.
“I’d rather build my area up than bring my area down,” Greer says. “To give people a chance to live in the homes that were in rough shape not too long ago—it’s beautiful. They just need a little TLC.”
Alade says Fitz Forward will no longer renovate 115 homes. So far the company has purchased 56, but he won’t give an exact number for how many they’ll eventually fix up or a date for when they hope to be finished. The next phase of 10 rehabs will begin later this summer. The developer is also seeking more money from the city for the project, but declined to say how much.
“What we’re focusing on now is not rehabbing X number of homes,” Alade says. “If that’s 100 homes, that’s great. ... By any objective measure, we’ve done a lot. In a way, the actual rehab of housing is one of the least significant parts of it. It’s really about building a safe neighborhood that brings amenities and economic opportunities that are vital to people’s wellbeing.”
As the new meadows bloom, kids shoot hoops on the new courts, and the sounds of renovation are heard down the blocks, it seems Fitzgerald is on the cusp of a promising future. Even if it hasn’t come as fast, or as smoothly, as many had hoped.