It’s fun these days when someone from out of town asks how things are going in Detroit. A decade ago, the answer would have been much different.
Back in 2013, the city was approaching bankruptcy, the political climate was unstable, with former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick sent to federal prison on 24 felony counts, including racketeering and wire fraud, and there was the on-again, off-again renaissance that never quite took hold.
Today, thanks to its resurgence — marked by new office, residential, and civic developments downtown, and a fledgling rejuvenation of the neighborhoods that has drawn an influx of younger residents, empty nesters, and professionals — Detroit has been recognized repeatedly as America’s comeback city. But it’s not the sort of thing that happened overnight.
The seeds of Detroit’s resurgence, which began around 2014, following the city’s successful exit from the largest municipal bankruptcy on record, were planted 15 years earlier by people who believed it was possible and took risks to make it happen.
Mark Nickita, a partner at the architecture/design firm Archive DS in downtown Detroit, was one of the believers. He, along with a handful of partners, launched their firm in 1989; today, it operates internationally to help implement best practices in urban planning and the re-use of old properties.
“I remember sitting in our office one night when we were working late,” Nickita recalls. “On the fire escape of the second floor of our space, which is now the Wright & Company restaurant, it was cold and dark, and we (looked) down Woodward Avenue and there (wasn’t) a light on in the entire street.
“It was out of Gotham City. Half the streetlights were out and (you had) steam coming out of the manholes. And we (were) just standing on the fire escape, looking out over Woodward Avenue, thinking, ‘Isn’t this the coolest thing?’”
Nickita grew up on the northwest side of the city near Sinai Grace Hospital. His business partner, Dorian Moore, is also a native of the city. With Nickita as the lead designer and Moore handling architecture, Archive DS sought out developers who were interested in reviving old, but still viable, buildings.
“Our first projects of substance were abandoned, run-down buildings in Midtown, usually the 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, or 20-unit apartment buildings that had been empty for many years and (were) essentially close to abandoned, or had drug-related activities or other situations, and we were looking at developers who wanted to turn those into housing,” he says.
Most of those who expressed interest were independent developers who found it difficult to get financing, but believed in the potential of the area. Between 1995 and 2000, Archive DS worked with various developers on projects like the renovation of several historic apartment buildings, including the Ven, the Edmond, and the Waldorf on Cass Avenue.
The game-changer was the Canfield Lofts, located at 460 W. Canfield directly across from the first Shinola store. Started in 1999 and completed in 2001, Canfield Lofts ended up as an award-winning project that set the stage for loft living in the city. One could be forgiven if, at the time, the potential of converting an old industrial power building that was built in the 1920s into a hip loft structure was a pipe dream.
“Canfield Lofts was really modeled after things we’d studied in New York, Toronto, and other cities,” Nickita says. “They were converting this stuff and selling it in New York, and we were seeing it in Toronto — even in Cleveland, and places around the Midwest. So we were saying, this has got to come to Detroit.”
Nickita was already working to sell J.C. Cataldo, a developer based in Birmingham, on downtown Detroit as the best place for such projects. Cataldo had studied what was happening in other cities around the country and developed a strong conviction that too many older buildings weren’t being used as they could be.
“I’d seen enough buildings that were being converted from obsolete structures to residential living, and I was really more focused on Chicago,” Cataldo says, “but through Mark’s passion and understanding of downtown Detroit, and saying, ‘J.C., listen, this town is happening, this is where we need to go,’ (he educated) me as to the different areas around Detroit and the different zones.”
Nickita and Cataldo started focusing on what was then known as the Cass Corridor, and when they received a call from a broker about the Canfield building, they were eager to see it. “I said, ‘This fits the formula,’ ” Cataldo recalls. “The acquisition price was right, it had a good history to it, and the scale was proper for what our group could develop.”
But would people really flock to a converted industrial building in the Cass Corridor? Archive DS put together some conceptual drawings and placed them on display during an open house that saw 400 people come through the door in the first four hours.
As it turned out, 18 people signed purchase agreements on the spot, embracing an urban lifestyle that was only beginning to emerge as a viable option. “It was much more minimalistic, much more raw,” Cataldo says. “The materials spoke for themselves. We weren’t covering brick with drywall. We weren’t painting the concrete to make it different colors. We just left all the elements. It’s still a popular lifestyle, but back then it was like, ‘Holy cow, what in the world is going on here?’ ”
Canfield Lofts wound up setting the stage for much of the residential activity happening in Midtown today. But it wasn’t Archive DS’s only foray into visioning downtown Detroit’s future, nor was it the largest.
Around the time Dennis Archer started his first of two terms as mayor in 1994, Archive DS was working on a concept project called the Columbia Street Entertainment Link. Its primary purpose was simply to show the firm’s capabilities, but they did it up big, with a master plan that included a major renovation of the area all the way from Grand River Avenue on the west side of downtown Detroit to the east side at I-375. The plan was complemented by renderings and a fully-built-out scale model of the urban vision.
This was before Comerica Park or Ford Field — let alone Little Caesars Arena — or the restoration of the Columbia Theatre into the Detroit Opera House. The plan envisioned the area as the entertainment and sports center of the world.
“We actually planned a ballpark on essentially the site where Ford Field is now,” Nickita says, “and we put an arena on the other side that was essentially at Grand River and Columbia Street. So we had two anchors, an arena on one side and a ballpark on the other, and Columbia Street connecting the two venues.”
The area would have had a jazz museum, an automobile museum, and a sports hall of fame, as well as new stores and restaurants.
Having done the entire thing pro bono, Archive DS was able to get in front of Archer and his economic development director, Beth DunCombe, to present the ideas.
“Of course, (Archer) thought it was great, although a mayor can’t just turn around and make something like that happen,” Nickita says. “But you can start working on the path. He asked us to do a couple of other things, and we met with him (and his planning staff) a couple of times over the course of a year. That’s what got us engaged with the city and the planning staff at the time, and it led us to other projects.”
Specifically, Archer asked Archive DS to put together an idea for the Kern block, the Crowley block, and the Hudson’s building, all of which were demolished. That concept eventually led to the development of Campus Martius Park, and the construction and redevelopment of the blocks neighboring the urban square.
The creative impetus for the vision didn’t come solely from spending time in Detroit. Nickita and his team traveled extensively and studied what other cities have done to revitalize their core areas. A favorite is Toronto, where Archive DS has an office.
Today, other local cities are taking advantage of that insight. Most significant among them is Birmingham, which is Nickita’s home and where he has served as mayor and is still a member of the city commission. “Mark shaped Birmingham more than any person I know,” Cataldo says. “We adopted a new master plan, but there really wasn’t anyone in particular on the city staff or in the community who (was) going to shepherd it along.”
Nickita, a member of the planning board, began getting involved with details like how planters on Old Woodward should look, and the proper alignment of crosswalks. “It makes a difference between a mediocre town and something that’s really special,” Cataldo says. “That’s what Birmingham is becoming, and it’s because of him. He’s relentless at making sure things are properly implemented. He’ll go crazy if he sees a utility box stuck in the middle of a sidewalk.”
Nearby, Mark Vanderpool, city manager of Sterling Heights, has been working for several years with Archive DS to reimagine Lakeside Mall. Sterling Heights may not have a downtown district, but it’s convinced it can benefit from the urban visions that have helped shape larger cities.
“They had a lot of background in significant commercial redevelopment,” Vanderpool says. “Obviously, Mark Nickita, as a former mayor and commissioner, has been very involved in redevelopments for the city of Birmingham, and he just has an outstanding reputation in the industry.”
Kevin Denha, founding partner with Birmingham-based Vision Investment Partners, has worked with Archive DS on a mixed-use project in Detroit on Broadway, as well as several projects in Birmingham, and was struck by Nickita’s acumen for urban planning.
“What sets him apart is that, on a high level, he can look at a building right away and tell you — before getting to the nitty gritty — what you can build there,” Denha says. “His analysis will give a clear picture of whether this thing is going to work or not financially. And it’s not just financial. If it’s apartments, he’ll tell you if they’re going to rent or not.”
That has allowed Vision Investment Partners to tread more confidently into the urban space. “Where you don’t have a lot of land mass, but you have the ability to go vertical, it’s that specific expertise that’s critical,” Denha adds.
Moore, one of the partners at Archive DS, is the architectural collaborator to Nickita’s designs (along with designer Kevin Borsay, who rounds out the team). “We collaborate on design, for the most part,” Moore says. “Mark handles more of the marketing end, and I handle more the project management, and we interface on the design portion. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to work together. We did competitions and theoretical projects together early on, and we liked the interface we had working collaboratively. We think that’s a good model.”
The owners, along with Borsay’s wife, Shawn Santo, are also partners in the Pure Detroit stores, which sell a variety of Detroit-centric items from six locations in the city.
In addition to Sterling Heights, Archive DS is working on urban initiatives in Pontiac and Royal Oak. Current Detroit projects include the Majestic Theatre and 220 Congress — a five-story office building that’s being transformed into mixed-use with public space.
Ideas to inspire such projects continue to come from travel throughout the world. A recent trip to London gave Nickita an idea he’s implementing in Hazel Park. “That’s the key to our growth,” Nickita says. “It’s continued education. It inspires us. It roots us to what’s going on and to what people are doing, and it gives us insight into opportunities and ideas, so we’re not living in a vacuum. Even though we’ve been working in Detroit our entire careers, the reality is we’re constantly exposed to what people are doing everywhere.”