It’s probably been at least a decade since I remember Bobby Taubman, the mall mogul, saying that the precondition for downtown retail development depends on people.
People who would work in the city. People whose presence would create demand for goods and services here. People who feel comfortable enough with the city, its direction and its handle on public safety to live and shop, or both, in Detroit.
Without people — or investment catalysts such as mortgage impresario Dan Gilbert and his outsized wallet — and what feels like sustainable enthusiasm, the boom Detroit is experiencing now wouldn’t be happening.
The Taubman Centers Inc. chairman had it exactly right. What he probably didn’t foresee (who did?) is what it would take to get here: the felony conviction of a sitting mayor. A corruption roll-up at City Hall. The Great Recession. A historic bankruptcy, new political leadership and billions in private investment that otherwise would have stayed parked in the suburbs or moved elsewhere.
Don’t misunderstand: there are still lots of things broken in Detroit. Schools don’t work. Too many neighborhoods, many plagued with violent crime, need reinvestment. Broad swaths of the riverfront evoke the graveyard of an industrial past badly in need of transformation.
But progress is unmistakable, hard evidence that America’s poorest major city, its upended political culture and its hard-hit business community can rally around itself. Not because dupes are responding to rah-rah boosterism, but because both local and out-of-town investors see value and early-mover advantage embedded in Detroit — and they’re moving to seize it.
Right about now, I can hear the skeptics moaning: Is he serious? Detroit’s a dump. It can’t educate its children. Can’t control its unions. Can’t control gangs wandering through sketchy neighborhoods. Can’t manage its books without the intercession of an emergency manager, high-priced professional talent and federal judges.
To which I say: you need to get out more, channel the old Toyota mantra to “go and see.” The critics are only half right. This town is changing with remarkable speed, buoyed by leadership, optimism and a marginally good macro-economy that is powering an especially lengthy recovery in the Detroit-based auto industry.
The cycle won’t last forever; it never does. But when it slows, Detroit will be in a better position than any time in decades to manage the downshift, partly because the influx of new people, new businesses and new housing should help cushion the blow.
The $65 million Orleans Landing development on Atwater along the east riverfront promises to deliver 278 apartments, 30 townhouses and retail space when it opens near the Department of Natural Resources’ Outdoor Adventure Center.
In Corktown, Larson Realty Group is planning “The Corner” on the site of old Tiger Stadium. It expects to build 105 apartments, 35 townhouses and develop 35,000 square feet of retail. Across Trumbull, Anthony Soave’s Soave Enterprises plans four new buildings with 89 residential units.
In Brush Park, Gilbert’s Brush Park Development Co. is moving ahead with plans to build the city’s largest residential development in more than 30 years — a $70 million effort that would develop 20 buildings housing 400 living units.
The implication should be clear to all but the most willfully deluded: the numbers finally are penciling well enough to make private investment in Detroit worth the risk. Why? Because people drive demand and lure investment, not the other way around.
That’s one test. Another will come in the rolling occupation of retail space along Woodward and elsewhere in downtown, a precursor to expansion into under-served neighborhoods, if rhetoric from the business community is to be believed.
Small minority-owned shops such as the House of Pure Vin and Detroit is The New Black co-exist with a new Nike Store, a posh John Varvatos boutique and the Vancouver-based Kit and Ace “athleisure” brand, among others. Ubiquitous suburban fixtures they are not.
It’s stunning, this slow transformation. Every week there’s a new opening or a new restaurant to try; there’s a new wine bar in the Kales building or another building being rehabbed in arguably the biggest construction boom this town has seen in a generation.
None of this is possible without the people, the means and the inclination to come to Detroit, spend in Detroit, work in Detroit and live in Detroit. None of it would be happening if this revitalization was a mirage concocted by wizards behind some screen.
It’s not, and that makes all the difference.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.