Detroit’s Corktown is poised to pop with development

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit – — Corktown may be Detroit’s oldest neighborhood, but this historical district, with its hopping Michigan Avenue business corridor, will be home to some of the city’s newest and most eventful developments.

Along with mainstays such as Nemo’s Bar and Grill and well-entrenched hot spots such as Slow’s Bar B Q, Corktown soon will be home to a new brewery, multiuse residential developments along the former Tiger Stadium site and much more in the months to come, real estate developers and investors say.

Not all the new development is residential or even home-grown. Out-of-towners and corporations also are coming in. All the signs are pointing in the right direction for a Corktown invasion, said Mike Koenigbauer, vice president of Brokerage Services for Friedman Integrated Real Estate Solutions in Farmington Hills.

“It’s like the first dominoes falling,” Koenigbauer said. “Having new companies come in will only make the area better and make people want to come around. If these go off without a hitch, there’s a chance the rest will fall in line.”

Cranes and hammers are speeding through the construction of Quicken Loans’ new Technology Center along Rosa Parks Boulevard, which is scheduled to open in early 2015. Half of the data center will be occupied by Quicken Loans’ technology team; the exact number of employes to be located there isn’t known yet, a spokesman said. An equal-size 33,000-square-foot portion of the building, including the second 10,000-square-foot server room, will be available for lease when the center opens.

A few steps away, the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute will invest $148 million to renovate a vacant 107,000-square-foot plant, filling a space Mexican Industries left empty in 2001. It will open with a staff of 10; eventually, two dozen employees will be based there.

The few remaining vacant properties are filling quickly, so building from the ground up may be the only way that newcomers can get in on this oasis just blocks from downtown, said Joe Mifsud, who owns several Corktown properties and is the landlord for hot spots such as Two James distillery, Italian restaurant Ottava Via and the Mercury Bar.

“People’s eyes were open” to Corktown’s potential, Mifsud said. “I think now the banks have opened up their doors. They’ve opened up their war chests for lending. Without access to money, people with ideas had to put them on hold. I know a few business owners who have wanted to expand here for years. But you can only do so much by yourself. You need the banks.”

He has plans to open a yet-unnamed brewery in Corktown, certain that his family’s four-decade investment in this well-loved section of the city will continue to pay off. “We (as a community) want to develop every single building on Michigan Avenue and throughout Corktown,” Mifsud said.

These projects come alongside this year’s newbies such as independent bookstore Ditto Ditto at 1548 Trumbull and El Dorado, a vintage and general store, at 1700 Michigan Ave. In March, foodie favorite Bucharest Grill opened its second location at 1623 Michigan Ave., building a powerful restaurant row.

This fall, several much-anticipated openings will include Gold Cash Gold, the latest restaurant from the Cooley family, owner of Slow’s. Batch Brewing Company, the 2013 winners of the Comerica Hatch Detroit business competition, is steadily renovating 1400 Porter St. for its nanobrewery.

These additions are one reason Grosse Pointe Woods resident Jeanette Evans takes her kids and family friends to Corktown — it’s familiar yet always changing, the mom of two said.

“It’s an iconic area of the city; everybody’s been to a Tigers game growing up,” said Evans, who frequently eats at Mercury and Bucharest.

“Big picture, it’s a good thing for Corktown. It’s not that you’re losing your secret spot. Any new businesses draw people and money in, and that is great for the neighborhood.”

So much interest in Corktown has actually priced several businesses off Michigan Avenue, and made finding a home difficult for others. There are people ready to invest the second the right building comes on the market, said Friedman’s Koenigbauer.

“I’ve got a brewery from New York that’s teamed up with local investors, and I cannot find them a spot in Corktown,” Koenigbauer said. “The area could be developed a lot more if we could get ahold of some of these building owners. I’m digging through public records to find a name and a phone number to call only to find it disconnected. They must think it’s dead still.”

They couldn’t be more wrong, Koenigbauer said. “It’s really become a destination,” he noted. “It’s clean. It’s got artsy developments. It’s got its own culture, its own vibe. … Corktown is accessible to people from the city and the suburbs. They’ve been familiar with the area for years with the Corktown St. Patrick’s Day parade and Tigers games.”

The Roxbury Group is one of the developers that wants a chance to work on the Tigers Stadium site. Roxbury’s vice president, James Van Dyke, attended a meeting last week with neighborhood residents and project reps to gauge what kind of approach would be best for Corktown.

“It’s interesting in the sense that it’s the oldest neighborhood in the city and one of the strongest in terms of single-family home ownership. There’s a real commitment to the neighborhood,” Van Dyke said. If selected, the Roxbury Group hopes to develop “a community center there, more so than any other development that we’ve done. So whatever we do there really has to be responsive to the community’s wants.”

This is all good news to Ryan Cooley, a Corktown resident and owner of O’Connor Real Estate and Development. The former Chicago-based banking vice president moved to the neighborhood in 2004 and believes its potential is finally being realized.

“Corktown already had a number of places that were anchors; we saw the potential for it to be a large city neighborhood with independent retail and mom-and-pop places. That’s where people who work in a city tend to live,” Cooley said.

“With the economy’s harsh downturn (in 2008-09), the pricing hadn’t made sense to build new. It’s just starting to at this point in time to reach those numbers to do new construction or build a new house. And that to me is the big moment. It’s taken a long time to get there, but it’s finally here,” Cooley said. “It’s not just speculators; it’s people who want to stay.”

Quicken Loans Chief Executive Officer Bill Emerson said Corktown’s renaissance is a snapshot of what’s happening around the city. He said the company selected to build its 66,000-square-foot data center and office complex there for several reasons: Its proximity to its downtown headquarters, the other tech companies nearby and its commitment to rebuilding Detroit’s neighborhoods.

“We’ll use a good chunk of the space, but there will be an equal size available for lease to companies that have a need for a tech center. It’s just another opportunity for a business that’s thinking about moving to Detroit,” Emerson said. “There’s a buzz that’s starting to happen here. The momentum that’s building should give people a real buzz.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.