WRITTEN BY IVAN CARVALHO
PHOTOGRAPHY BY STEFAN JERMANN
PLENTY OF PEOPLE HAVE HAD A HAND IN THE REVIVAL OF MIDTOWN BUT NO NAME IS MORE SYNONYMOUS, AND MORE CITED IN CONVERSATIONS, WITH THE NEIGHBORHOOD THAN SUE MOSEY. OFTEN DUBBED THE UNOFFICIAL “MAYOR OF MIDTOWN,” MOSEY HAS LITERALLY GIVEN THE AREA ITS NAME, A REBRANDING OF SORTS OF A SLICE OF THE CITY THAT INCLUDED SEEDY PARTS LIKE THE CASS CORRIDOR, AND HAS HELPED TO USHER IN A NEW ERA OF PROSPERITY.
Mosey is president of Midtown Detroit Inc (MDI), a non-profit planning and development agency charged with revitalizing a key chunk of the Motor City. Her nearly three decades of work have laid the groundwork for what is today a thriving Midtown neighborhood: abandoned factories renovated into swanky lofts, trash-littered streets replaced by planters full of flowers and a new wave of in-demand retailers, from Shinola and Whole Foods market to Carhartt, a hip Michigan-based clothier known for dungarees and other utilitarian workwear that this past summer inaugurated its first Detroit store on Cass Avenue, a once-blighted strip plagued by drugs and prostitution.
In the late 1980s, Mosey saw the raw potential in the rundown areas surrounding the urban campus of Wayne State University, the college where she earned a degree in urban planning. “When Midtown Detroit Inc. began working in this district decades ago, the level of disinvestment was massive,” says Mosey. “Although we still had museums, a major arts college and public university, all the fabric surrounding them had eroded. It has taken decades to put in place the necessary tools and funding to move the redevelopment efforts forward.”
One of MDI’s first accomplishments, Mosey says, was to get almost the whole neighborhood onto the National Register of Historic Places, which allowed private developers to get access to federal and state tax credits to make redevelopment projects viable – and make it more attractive to renovate old buildings rather than tear them down, thus preserving the neighborhood’s character. New arrival Carhartt, for example, now occupies a three-story building designed in 1928 by local architect Charles Agree that was once an auto dealership. Reclaimed wood from Detroit homes were used to make tabletops, the back wall and dressing rooms. The concrete floor refurbishment and floor rugs were also sourced from Michigan businesses, giving an extra boost to the local economy.
In the past decade alone MDI has raised some $60 million for a variety of initiatives: the Midtown Greenway Loop, a project to carve out pedestrian and bike lanes in the car-dependent city; the restoration and conversion of six historic homes into a boutique hotel; the creation of the Sugar Hill Arts District; the construction of two community gardens and a Green Alley; the renovation of many commercial facades throughout the district; and a matching grants security enhancement program for property and business owners.
A few early successes that helped kick-start Midtown’s revival were the renovation of the Albert Kahn-designed Garfield Lofts and the popular Canfield Lofts, one of the first upscale loft condo developments in the city and the one that proved there was serious demand for loft buying in Midtown.
“I think what we always really valued here was the built environment," Mosey says, rolling off the names of all the educational and cultural institutions clustered around Midtown’s core. “The institutions have provided their own ingredients to the stone soup that has been the Midtown revival – everything from Wayne State developing dorms that brought thousands of resident students to the once almost all-commuter school, to the College for Creative Studies’ Argonaut Building. Now we’ve become a jobs driver and an opportunity driver.”
This thoughtful approach to urban regeneration did not happen overnight but in the past few years results have become noticeable as new businesses and prospective residents are taking a new look at Detroit. Thirty-seven new Midtown businesses opened last year, including Selden Standard, an eatery that quickly became a hit with foodies and gourmet critics. The district’s retail vacancy rate has fallen to 10 percent, down from 22 percent six years ago, and its residential occupancy rate tops 97 percent, with four hundred new residential units under construction and 1,700 more in the pipeline.
The neighborhood is now a veritable haven for small businesses, typically the biggest casualty when urban decay strikes. Now locals walk by new coffee shops, yoga studios, restaurants and clothing boutiques at addresses that had been vacant for years. Even more encouraging is that the crime rate is down more than 50 percent since the 2008 financial crisis struck.
Adds Mosey: “It takes a very long time to rebuild the fabric. Density is the driver. As we have more people living here, the business folks are naturally attracted to these areas, and the momentum builds.” Mosey claims that young hires at law firms and other businesses are now shunning the suburbs and looking for apartments in the city to be part of this positive energy pulsing through Midtown.
“Five years from now, I envision Midtown to be more walkable and bikeable as many of the last of our vacant historic properties get repurposed and vacant land begins to infill with new mixed-use development.” The remarkable progress in Midtown has become a benchmark that other depressed industrial cities trying to adapt to the new rules of the 21st century economy can look to and the area’s turnaround has attracted interest from national and international media eager to learn more about what Mosey has started in Detroit.
However, despite the feel-good vibes Mosey is adamant that it takes a lot of hard work to rebuild block by block a disadvantaged neighborhood. What’s more, she says, it requires getting the mix just right between affordable housing, high-end lofts and retailers that can offer a wide range of services from dry cleaning to street fashion. “This isn't easy work or quick money,” warns Mosey. “Midtown Detroit Inc. believes that the integration of real estate development, the arts, public spaces, small business development and community building opportunities is what makes an urban district successful. We want people who are in it for the long term. That's what we're looking for. That's the end game.”