For many, the cheerful mural of a rising sun and smiling giraffe saying “Welcome to Woodbridge” is the gateway to the near west side Detroit neighborhood. But you might not know that the building has been vacant for over three years and was underutilized well before that.
While Woodbridge has largely avoided the fate of many other Detroit neighborhoods over the decades of disinvestment and recent housing crisis, this relative health masks some challenges. Many of the over-100-year-old Victorian homes that make up the neighborhood’s housing stock are in need of repair, several prominent buildings stand abandoned or unused, and large tracts of empty land sit undeveloped.
But these challenges also present some opportunities.
In steps Woodbridge Neighborhood Development (WND). The nonprofit developer has been working with Cinnaire, a Lansing-based community development financial institution, on a few ambitious projects to bring alternative housing options and local amenities to the old neighborhood.
As for the “giraffe” building, the groups plan to invest $1.2 million into the three-story, 8,600-square-foot former back branch at Grand River and Trumbull avenues. The building could house a food or beverage tenant on the ground floor and office space for smaller offices on the upper floors.
WND hosted a community event earlier this year to let residents tour the building and offer feedback.
Angie Gaabo, executive director of WND, says for every project, the community will have a significant say in the use of the buildings. “We’ve got a lot of goals that we’ve stated as a community for affordability, diversity, locally-owned businesses, authenticity, and other things that matter to us,” she says.
WND has an uphill battle to save another neighborhood institution. The 17,900-square-foot Hancock School near Rosa Parks Boulevard has been vacant since the early 2000s and is in rough shape. Bought by Cinnaire for $1.5 million, the group wouldn’t even speculate about the costs to redevelop it.
The Kresge Foundation granted WND $150,000 to begin cleanup efforts and community engagement on the project, which will be a multi-year effort. Nonetheless, the groups see a lot of potential in the building to fill in neighborhood needs, like a community or daycare center. They’ll soon hire a planning firm to lead the process.
The final large-scale development would likely come to fruition even further in the future. The group owns eight acres of vacant land west of Rosa Parks around Canfield Street on the site of the former Wilbur Wright School.
Ed Potas, manager of real estate development at Cinnaire, says Woodbridge homes are “massive, old, and require a lot of maintenance.” This development could be a way to bring housing variety to the neighborhood, like smaller or accessible units for seniors who can’t maintain a large home.
Affordable housing is a priority for Evette Napier, president of Woodbridge Neighborhood Development and lifelong resident of Woodbridge. “Me being a grandmother of four, I’d like my family to be able to stay in the neighborhood and afford the housing prices here,” she says.
For now, WND has been offering needier residents grants of up to $5,000 for home-repair projects. Funding for the program was raised through the purchase, rehab, and sale of a home on Calumet Street. Cinnaire, which typically doesn’t fund single-family home projects, made the rehab possible thanks to a construction loan.
They’re nearly done with another home rehab on Avery Street. Once again, profits will be used to fund home repair grants.
Add all this to the beautiful $650,000 restoration of Scripps Park and protected bike lanes along Trumbull, and Woodbridge may soon be one of the more complete neighborhoods in the city. WND just has to pull off its ambitious plans.