Case Studies: Motor City Makeover

Posted on January 18, 2017

A Mixed-Income Revitalization of Detroit’s Historic Brush Park Neighborhood

Since its emergence from bankruptcy a few years ago, Detroit has undergone a remarkable renaissance. Now, a historic Motor City neighborhood is in line for one of the boldest initiatives yet. A partnership led by Bedrock Detroit and Brush Park Development Co. is embarking on City Modern, a $100 million mixed-use, mixed-income development in the city’s Midtown district. The project aims to infuse vitality into a burgeoning neighborhood while respecting the legacy of its Victorian homes.

“We have not in many years seen the opportunity to develop a neighborhood of this size in Detroit,” said Steve Rosenthal, principal of Bedrock Detroit. “The opportunity of blending a historic neighborhood in Detroit between Midtown and Downtown in the path of development with a contemporary style is a hinge point for Detroit’s new neighborhoods.” Scheduled for completion in 2020, the project will create 410 residences in 20 new buildings and four restored historic structures.

Rosenthal’s confidence stems partly from City Modern’s location, which is close to other highlights of Detroit’s revival and well-established attractions. Little Caesars Arena, the 20,000-seat venue that will be the new home of the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings and pro basketball’s Detroit Pistons, will open just southwest of the neighborhood in September 2017. The QLine, a 3.3-mile-long streetcar route that will link Midtown and Downtown Detroit starting this year, includes a stop near City Modern’s western edge. A few blocks east, residents will find Eastern Market, a food, dining and arts venue that dates back more than a century.

City Modern creates a community to age in place, with five different typologies of homes and outdoor community spaces for its residents. Images courtesy of Bedrock Detroit

City Modern’s funding package will combine equity contributions from the development partners, construction loans and $900,000 worth of low-income housing tax credits. Twenty percent of the units will be designated as affordable.

Bedrock envisions this project as a community that can accommodate all stages of life, enabling residents to age in place. In this way, City Modern will make a contribution to reversing the shrinkage of Detroit’s multifamily stock.

“In Detroit, because we’ve demolished so many multifamily structures, it is hard for people to fully invest in one community,” said Melissa Dittmer, Bedrock’s director of architecture and design. “There are residents who have been in one community for so long, but then when they age or have a lifestyle change, there is nowhere for them to transition to.”

By offering residences of varying sizes and configurations, City Modern will be able to find homes appropriate to every phase of life. “In addition to providing aging in place, we want to promote different lifestyles and income diversity,” Dittmer said. “That type of heterogenous culture is what’s exciting about urban living.”

All City Modern residents will have access to six public spaces connected by landscaped pathways, 16 semi-private rooftop terrace options, high-speed Internet service and electric charging stations. Other amenities will vary between rental and for-sale properties. The 303 rental units will offer laundry, a 3,000-square-foot fitness facility, community lounges, bike storage and dog-washing stations. Owners of the 107 for-sale units will choose from a menu of amenities.

Scheduled for completion in 2020, the $100 million City Modern mixed-use development in historic Brush Park is situated near other highlights of Detroit’s revival.


Search for excellence

In developing the plan for City Modern, Bedrock sought out architects with an excellent track record for working in historic districts. The strategy provided the additional benefit of enlisting firms that reflect sensibilities from the East, West and Midwest, as well as from the development’s hometown. Following a nationwide search, Bedrock selected five firms to tackle the diverse lineup of residences. Studio Dwell of Chicago and Detroit-based Hamilton Anderson Associates were tapped to design 43 units dubbed Town Homes; the for-sale residences will offer three or four bedrooms and an optional rooftop terrace. Christian Hurttienne Architects of Grosse Pointe, Mich., is tackling the Historic Home units. They will consist of seven residences in four Victorian mansions that represent Brush Park’s grand houses of a century ago. One of the four Historic Home properties is already occupied, and renovation of the other three is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2017.

Boston-based Merge Architects is doing double duty. The firm designed the 64 Carriage Homes, for-sale residences marked by bold modern lines and subtle hues. Many of the two- and three-bedroom units will feature a rooftop terrace and a central courtyard. Merge is also handling the Duplettes, 36 two-story, two-bedroom rental units that will share semi-private rooftop green space.

Responsibility for the largest number of City Modern units belongs to Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects and Hamilton Anderson Associates. The firms are designing The Flats, 260 single-level units distributed among a half-dozen five- and six-story buildings.

“I don’t think there is anywhere in the U.S. where this density and amount of award-winning architecture has been laced so closely together and constructed in such a short period of time,” said Dittmer, adding, “This is an unprecedented project for an American city.”

Sense and sensibility

Developing in the historic neighborhood presented significant challenges. Bedrock had to ensure that the project would embrace contemporary principles and amenities without overshadowing the historic nature of the neighborhood.

“We had to do things like making sure the buildings had the appropriate setbacks,” explained Dittmer, “making sure they didn’t dominate in height, that the rooflines did not domineer over the historic structure, that the overall material palette was complementary to the historic color palette that already existed there.”

“We created a color and material palette that pulled from the past. A brick structure with masonry limestone and fresh colors to balance it out. The urban form complemented the historic architecture in place. We had to figure out a volume of buildings based on these guidelines that was designed in a language representative of 2016.”

“We pushed for modern and contemporary architecture, and altered our designs to take cues from the existing structures and form a historic reinterpretation into a modern aesthetic.”

Built-in solution

A dearth of retail options is a chronic problem in mixed-income and low-income urban communities, so City Modern will build in a big part of the solution. The plan calls for 22,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. For grocery shopping, residents will be able to venture the short distance to the Whole Foods store, four blocks north on Mack Avenue, as well as to Eastern Market. Those options should go a long way toward enhancing the density of an area where a new neighborhood has not been built for decades.

“The connectivity to the Eastern Market where people live, work and play, and the new (Little Caesars Red Wing Arena) to the west creates a great opportunity for all Detroiters,” said Rosenthal. “The walkability of this neighborhood and access to these amenities inside and out of the community is what can draw people to the area.”

The developers envision a community where residents can experience the energy and diversity of urban living in a low-rise setting of approachable scale.

Rosenthal summed up what he hopes to see when the project is completed: “A vibrant neighborhood that has a seamless mixture … blending historic homes and its neighborhood with a modern design and streetscape.”