Unlocking the Potential of Detroit’s Neighborhoods: The Partnership for Building Reuse

By Margaret O'Neal posted 08-30-2016 15:29

Avalon International Breads has been located in a converted storefront on the Cass Corridor for nearly 20 years. | Credit: Adam Jacobs Photography  

Though many cities across the country have experienced rapid growth followed by steep economic decline at some point in their histories, the scale of Detroit’s challenges and opportunities is unparalleled. Because of this it is particularly important to explore the role that Detroit’s existing buildings play in catalyzing new—and supporting ongoing—revitalization efforts.

The fifth and final study in a series by the Preservation Green Lab as part of the Partnership for Building Reuse, Unlocking the Potential of Detroit’s Neighborhoods tackles city-specific barriers to building reuse while offering solutions to help realize the development potential of older buildings.

An Action Agenda for Detroit

 Parker Street Market, located near Kercheval, is an example of Detroit’s everyday older buildings supporting local economic activity. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Detroit is starting to see strong signs of recovery and hope. Instead of stories about abandoned buildings, arson, and crime, media coverage now focuses on the remarkable turnaround of downtown, the opening of new businesses and restaurants across the city, and the renewal of neighborhoods and community institutions.

These positive changes are incremental and dispersed, but they have one thing in common: the reuse and rehabilitation of great old buildings from Detroit’s past. Activity and renewal are often focused in areas where clusters or corridors of older, smaller, and pedestrian-friendly buildings survive. Corktown, Eastern Market, the Woodward and Cass corridors of Midtown, and the Livernois and McNichols corridors of Northwest Detroit are full of new businesses, residents, and visitors. Other neighborhoods are seeing stabilization and investment as well, but vast areas of the city remain stuck in a cycle of decline. What can be done to extend the benefits of revitalization to more neighborhoods and citizens of Detroit?

 Peter Platt Motor Sales in the Jefferson Chalmers commercial corridor. | Credit: Jeffrey Sauger

As in all Partnership for Building Reuse cities, the Preservation Green Lab’s work in Detroit combined research on the existing built environment with statistical analysis of its performance and policy recommendations for making reuse easier and more likely. In Detroit our analysis has shown that older, smaller buildings provide the foundation for entrepreneurs and small businesses, that commercial corridors with a mix of old and new buildings are the city’s new business hubs, and that its best restaurants and bars are in character-rich neighborhoods and commercial districts. Though these facts are no surprise to many preservationists, they are key to illustrating how older buildings play a pivotal role in Detroit’s recovery.

The action agenda for Detroit details four recommendations for strengthening its neighborhoods and communities through building reuse. In collaboration with a Detroit-based advisory committee and more than 65 local stakeholders, the Preservation Green Lab developed a powerful set of priorities to be led by public, private, and nonprofit organizations interested in bringing the benefits of reuse-based revitalization to more areas of Detroit. However, the action agenda is not the only product of the Partnership for Building Reuse process.

New and older small businesses coexist along Michigan Avenue in Corktown. | Credit: Michigan Main Street

Reuse Opportunity Models

In an effort to better understand the connections between current neighborhood conditions and the potential for reuse and revitalization, the Green Lab used its Older, Smaller, Better research to further analyze Detroit’s urban landscape. Using publicly accessible data, the Preservation Green Lab team developed two models for identifying areas of the city that are well positioned for building reuse. The models spotlight areas that have concentrations of older, smaller buildings; access to neighborhood amenities; signs of social and economic vitality; and indications of vacant or underused properties and limited investment.

These two models incorporate social, economic, real estate, and demographic measures; the Character Score highlighting older, smaller, and mixed-vintage buildings; and unique information about the condition of buildings, population density, and vacancy rates.

 Opportunities for reuse: residential buildings. In this map, darker colors indicate stronger potential for reuse of residential buildings in high-density (red), mid-density (purple), and low-density (green) areas of the city. Areas with particularly strong opportunities for residential building reuse include Bagley, Fitzgerald, Banglatown, Southwest Detroit, Grandmont Rosedale, Core City, and Islandview.

The residential reuse opportunity analysis model identifies areas that could benefit from focused programmatic and policy assistance to accelerate residential building reuse. Rather than focusing only on areas that currently have dense populations and low vacancy rates, this model explores high-, mid-, and low-density areas and identifies zones within each of those tiers where targeted attention could have the greatest impact. The three tiers were defined by population density and percent of buildings listed as occupied during the Motor City Mapping survey effort in 2013 and 2014. In each tiered zone, data related to neighborhood amenities, population change, economic vitality, and real estate metrics are used to spotlight high-opportunity areas.

Recognizing that the commercial corridors of Detroit could play an important role in supporting the city’s neighborhoods, the character opportunity analysis model focuses on opportunities for reusing commercial buildings. This model includes only grid squares that have at least one job and at least one square foot of commercial space. The model was designed to highlight areas of Detroit that have older, smaller commercial buildings and signs of healthy economic activity and that are located adjacent to growing neighborhoods and important neighborhood amenities.

Opportunities for reuse: commercial buildings. In this map, darker shares of blue indicate stronger potential for reuse of commercial buildings. Areas with particularly strong opportunities commercial building reuse include the Grand River corridor near Grandmont Rosedale and Riverdale; the areas surrounding the intersection of Livernois and McNichols; commercial areas in Mexicantown, Delray, and Southwest Detroit; and the East Warren Avenue corridor near East English Village.

In developing the reuse opportunity models, the Preservation Green Lab and the Detroit-based Advisory Committee decided to focus on areas with mid-range and top-tier performance—those that scored in the middle or top third on various measures. The rationale for this approach is that, when focusing on some metrics, areas of the city that are already performing well may not need additional programmatic or policy assistance to support further building reuse and investment. For instance, areas with a lot of development activity and very high property values may not benefit from focused efforts to bolster building reuse. At the same time, some neighborhoods may be dealing with so many fundamental quality of life issues (crime, high unemployment, very few existing buildings) that policies and programs focused on building reuse may have a limited effect on the vitality of the area.

Combining this opportunity analysis with our specific policy recommendations creates a roadmap to help target investment in areas of Detroit where it could really make an impact. And, unlike in other cities, the opportunity analysis goes beyond market opportunities. Recognizing that, in a city with as many old buildings as Detroit, you may not be able to save everything, the models provide insight into where the performance of existing buildings could spur development and change lives.

Formed in 2012 as a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Urban Land Institute to enhance opportunities for reuse in major U.S. cities, the Partnership for Building Reuse brings together community groups, real estate developers, and civic leaders around the common goal of making it easier to reuse and retrofit older buildings. Studies have been completed in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit. A national report with recommendations for reuse across the country is forthcoming in early 2017.

Margaret O'Neal is the senior manager of sustainable preservation for the Preservation Green Lab.

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