Tale of Two Cities

Rebuilding urban districts lining Michigan Avenue — Corktown in Detroit and the two downtown areas of Dearborn — follow a similar formula: Get land control, find strong developers, reduce red tape, and rebuild.


On Detroit’s near west side in Corktown, first settled by the Irish in 1834, Tony Soave, founder, president, and CEO of Soave Enterprises in Detroit, has started work on Elton Park, a $150-million development of 420 new and renovated residential apartments, up to 30,000 square feet of retail space, and a public area called Checker Alley. Renderings by Hamilton-Anderson

Over the past decade, mostly empty buildings lining Michigan Avenue in Corktown, located just west of downtown Detroit, have been redeveloped into upper-level offices and loft apartments, complemented by ground-floor stores and popular restaurants.

Yet getting development to occur in the blocks north and south of Michigan Avenue has proven to be difficult due to a palette of numerous owners, vacant lots, poor maintenance, and crime — namely, vehicle break-ins.

That’s about to change. In May, Detroit-based Soave Enterprises and its Soave Real Estate Group unveiled a $150-million, multiphase plan to transform a 4.5-acre, five-block area of Corktown bounded by Michigan and Trumbull avenues, I-75, and the Lodge Freeway.

The centerpiece is the former Checker Cab headquarters along Trumbull, just north of Michigan. Built in 1927, the three-story, 120,000-square-foot structure, along with the business of Checker Cab, was acquired by Soave Enterprises in 1998 to take advantage of the city’s emerging casino market and nightlife offerings, as well as the soon-to-open Comerica Park and Ford Field.

In recent months, Soave has relocated Checker Cab to Lafayette Park on the city’s east side, to make way for Elton Park — a development of 420 residential apartments (20 percent affordable), up to 30,000 square feet of retail space, a public area called Checker Alley, streetscape improvements, and parking. The project is expected to be completed over the next four to five years; the first phase of 151 apartments and 13,400 square feet of retail space will open in late summer of 2018.

“As the business for Checker Cab evolved, we began … to formulate the plans for Elton Park,” says Soave, founder, president, and CEO of Soave Enterprises, which includes real estate development, metals recycling, auto dealerships, and horticulture operations. “We obviously saw what was going on in downtown Detroit and Midtown, where there’s no vacancy.”

Soave, a native Detroiter, says the redevelopment of the former Checker Cab building — where former Detroit Tigers owner Tom Monaghan would land his helicopter for games — and neighboring structures complements two different projects underway at the former Tiger Stadium site, which is located directly across Trumbull. The Checker Building will offer 52 one- and two-bedroom lofts, 2,500 square feet of retail space, and 101 enclosed parking spaces on the first floor.

“The nice thing about Elton Park is that it’s very walkable,” says Soave, whose collective businesses employ 1,675 workers and posted revenue of $1.8 billion last year. “You can easily walk or ride a bike up or down Michigan Avenue and reach downtown, or go further west into Corktown or Mexicantown. And Checker Alley is going to be a place where you can have a nice meal, take in a small musical performance, or see an art exhibit.”

In addition, Soave Real Estate Group plans to construct five residential buildings on what is mostly surface parking lots used by patrons of Nemo’s Bar and Grill, Ottava Via, and other neighboring restaurants and bars. A parking deck is planned down the road, to be used by future residents and as parking for the neighboring eateries in Elton Park, which is named after a former public square that was removed to make way for the Lodge Freeway.

The project team includes two architectural firms, Hamilton Anderson Associates in Detroit and Quinn Evans Architects in Ann Arbor; The Roxbury Group in Detroit, which is serving as the development consultant; and Monahan Co., which is the general contractor and construction manager.

At the former Tiger Stadium site, Detroit PAL (Police Athletic League), a nonprofit organization, is nearing completion on a $20-million youth sports complex highlighted by a baseball diamond called the Willie Horton Field of Dreams, which offers 2,500 stadium seats, a banquet center, office space, and room for other activities. Some 13,000 children will benefit from the complex when it opens, says Tim Richey, CEO of Detroit PAL.

On the same site, Larson Realty Group will soon start work on The Corner, which will include 110 apartments and 26,000 square feet of ground floor retail space set in a four-story building that will span both Michigan and Trumbull. In addition, there will be a second phase of 35 for-sale townhomes with two-car garages along Trumbull and the I-75 Service Drive. The $39-million project will take two years to complete.

“We worked closely with the community and (Detroit’s) planning department to make sure the project is reflective and respective of the hallowed ground,” says Larson, president and CEO of Larson Realty Group. “Working with our architect, Rossetti in Detroit, the project will reflect the past. We’ll incorporate imagery from when the Tigers and Lions played there, (as well as) other major events such as the Civil Rights Movement.”

Further west, Crown Enterprises, the real estate division of the Moroun family of companies, has invested more than $8 million to secure Michigan Central Station at Michigan and 14th Street. The work completed to date includes the addition of a freight elevator, the installation of 1,100 windows, security upgrades, and roof and electrical repairs.

Opened in 1913 and rising 18 stories, the Beaux-Arts Classical structure was originally designed to include offices for Michigan Central Railroad, as well as a hotel. Due to various factors, including the rapid growth of auto sales, the tower was never fully occupied. It has sat vacant for the last 20 years.

Matthew Moroun, vice chairman of Detroit International Bridge Co., says the plan is to attract a large office tenant to occupy the structure. Other potential uses include a hotel, residential lofts, and some retail — or a combination of commercial and housing offerings. The former main lobby, designed after a Roman bathhouse, could be repurposed with offices, stores, and one or two restaurants.

Other projects in Corktown include the recent restoration of the former Detroit Fire Department Ladder House No. 12 at West Lafayette Avenue and 10th Street. Earlier this year, Ed Welburn, former vice president of global design at General Motors Co., opened a studio on the first floor, while a private residence occupies the second floor.

Behind the ladder house, and separated by an alley, is the original horse stable. Offering 600 square feet of space, the plan is to have a grab-and-go eatery and a small patio occupy the brick structure. Kyle Evans, principal of Kyle Evans Design in Detroit, and a former designer at FCA US in Auburn Hills, oversaw the restoration of both buildings. Michael Chetcuti, Phil Cooley, and Kate Bordine joined Evans in the project.

“In the old days, when the fire bell rang the firemen would guide the horses from the stable to the ladder house, harness them to the front of the fire wagon, and off they went,” Evans says. “Everywhere we could, we preserved the original materials so that story is never lost. It’s what makes Corktown and Detroit unique.”

Established in 1834, Corktown, named after the area’s numerous Irish immigrants from County Cork in Ireland, is Detroit’s oldest neighborhood. It is bounded by the Lodge and Fisher freeways, Rosa Parks Boulevard (12th Street), and Fort Street. Other recent projects include the opening of a data center by Quicken Loans Inc.; the redevelopment of a large warehouse along Fort Street into lofts by Bedrock; the $148-million Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT), the headquarters of Paxahau, an event production company; and numerous bars and restaurants.

“We invested in Corktown because of the potential for what is now transpiring — all of the great projects that are underway,” Evans says. “People may not appreciate how close to the river the neighborhood is. You could easily walk or ride your bike to the Riverwalk, which is another great connection to downtown, the east riverfront district, and Belle Isle.”


In May, Ford Motor Co. began work on a $60-million project that will see the restoration of the historic Wagner Hotel, built in 1896 at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street, to be complemented by a pair of three-story, mixed-use buildings. Some 600 Ford employees will start moving into what will be called Wagner Place next summer.

The birthplace of automotive pioneer Henry Ford, Dearborn was dominated by large farms prior to the opening of the Rouge Industrial Center in 1917. As demand swelled for Model Ts from Ford’s plant in Highland Park, the automaker began making plans for an integrated industrial complex along the Rouge River, at the junction of what is now Miller Road and Rotunda Drive.

When the complex was fully realized in 1927 with a steel plant, parts production, and final assembly areas, it drew thousands of workers from around the world. Most settled in the immediate neighborhoods of Dearborn, Detroit, and the former Springwells Township. Over time, Springwells developed a downtown district along Michigan Avenue and Schaefer Road, while Dearborn had its central business area at Michigan and Oakwood Boulevard. Decades ago, when Dearborn annexed Springwells, it gained the township’s downtown area.

Separated by two miles, East Dearborn and West Dearborn are now seeing major upgrades due to a booming economy; a period of prosperity for the city’s largest employer, Ford Motor Co.; and the automaker’s drive to redevelop its office, R&D, laboratories, and other properties into a high-tech hub akin to Silicon Valley. The redevelopment is expected to take 10 years, and the overall investment could be as high as $1 billion.

“For many years, you had too many different groups working separately on east and west Dearborn, and there wasn’t a lot of coordination,” says Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of Downtown Dearborn. The nonprofit civic group includes an alliance of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority, the West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority, Dearborn Business Leaders, community organizations, and city officials.

“Now we meet more often, and the consensus is that East Dearborn is for arts and culture, including the National Arab American Museum, while West Dearborn is geared more to tourism,” she explains. “West Dearborn includes The Henry Ford (Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, Greenfield Village, the Benson Ford Research Center, and the Ford Rouge Factory Tour), the University of Michigan – Dearborn and Henry Ford College, Fairlane Town Center, and what is the largest concentration of people from the Middle East in North America.”

With better coordination, Sheppard-Decius says the city and its civic groups are working more closely with Ford and other landowners and tenants to improve density and reduce the number of surface parking lots. She notes that other downtown districts in the region enjoy greater density, including downtown Birmingham, Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Ann Arbor.

To boost land uses, the city is looking at filling up vacant buildings and encouraging the development of commercial and residential projects on surface lots. Similar to Corktown, Dearborn has seen portions of the buildings that line Michigan Avenue be transformed into more businesses, spaces for civic activities, and residences in recent years, but the blocks immediately north and south of the main thoroughfare have been slow to draw investment.

To stoke activity, in May Ford Motor Land Development Corp., the real estate arm of Ford Motor Co., started work on a $60-million project that will refurbish the historic Wagner Hotel at Michigan and Monroe Street. The project will be complemented by a pair of three-story, mixed-use buildings, a public square, streetscape improvements, and a 370-space parking deck — the latter funded, in part, by a $3-million grant from the Michigan Strategic Fund.

Some 600 employees representing data and analytics activities will begin moving into the upper floors of Wagner Place next summer. One-third of the overall 150,000-square-foot project will be leased to retail and restaurant users. The land acquisition and development team includes Signature Associates Inc. in Southfield, Neumann/Smith Architecture in Detroit and Southfield, Mid-America Real Estate Corp. in Bloomfield Hills (leasing agent), and Roncelli Inc. in Sterling Heights (general contractor).

In May, Ford Motor Co. began work on a $60-million project that will see the restoration of the historic Wagner Hotel, built in 1896 at Michigan Avenue and Monroe Street, to be complemented by a pair of three-story, mixed-use buildings. Some 600 Ford employees will start moving into what will be called Wagner Place next summer.

“Typically we build on land we own, so over the last two years we acquired numerous parcels for Wagner Place and began working with the city to bring about the development,” says Doug Van Noord, director of sales, leasing, and development at Ford Motor Land Development. “We’ll program the outdoor space for company and community events, and we have the ability, working with the city, to shut down the streets (south of Michigan) for festivals. There also will be outdoor seating for the future restaurants.”

Just east of Wagner Place, Ford’s Garage, a multifaceted restaurant and bar geared to the history of the automaker, recently opened. In East Dearborn, the city’s former municipal center was transformed into Artspace Lofts, a collection of 53 live/work residences, along with a business incubation space.

As Ford transforms its campus across Dearborn, including the development of a new IT complex behind its world headquarters, and a new research center at its test track next to Greenfield Village, it has found creative ways to develop open office environments. The company recently leased 240,000 square feet of space at Fairlane Town Center — specifically in the section of the mall formerly occupied by the Lord & Taylor department store — as well as in an adjoining wing. Today, several hundred employees occupy the new office area.

“At first, when we moved in, our employees largely kept to their new space, but now we’re seeing them use the mall a lot more for lunches, informal meetings, exercise, and shopping,” Van Noord says. “The mall has been improved with new tenants and new common areas. It made a lot of sense to move there rather than build something new.”

New and updated stores at the mall include H&M, Metro PCS, Backstage Macy’s, Campus Den, and Detroit vs. Everybody. Upcoming improvements include a modernization of the AMC Classic Fairlane 21 (formerly Star Theatres), which includes an IMAX cinema, and there’s potential for a hotel and residential projects in the parking lots that surround the mall.

Looking further ahead, Sheppard-Decius says the city, working with the National Resource Network, HR&A Advisors Inc., and SmithGroupJJR in Detroit, identified four potential development opportunities in West Dearborn. Repurposing opportunities for the vacant or underutilized parcels include student housing, a hotel, multifamily residences, shops, restaurants, and an entertainment venue.

“Things have turned around with Ford’s redevelopment plans,” Sheppard-Decius says. “Plus, our daytime population is 150,000 visitors on average, which is significant as our overall population is 100,000 residents. Everyone is now working more closely together to improve our city. That’s the key to our success.”