Plan aims for ‘unprecedented’ change in Brush Park

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

The Victorian roots of Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood will be getting a modern update when the city’s largest residential construction project in more than 30 years breaks ground this fall.

That’s when the Dan Gilbert-backed Brush Park Development Co. hopes to start construction on 20 buildings — roughly 400 units of housing — on 8.4-acres in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood.

While the developers are working to address concerns from longtime residents and create mixed designs for the project, city historians and those who live in Brush Park say they’re worried that the new project can’t help but change the nature of a unique neighborhood that, despite its fading charms, is in desperate need of new residents and businesses.

To get the $70 million project right, developers and the Brush Park Development Co. are playing with the illusion of time.

“I didn’t want to design all of the buildings to look the exact same, because we wanted it to look like it has developed organically over time, the same way a city would,” said Melissa Dittmer, director of architecture and design at Bedrock Detroit, the real estate development arm of Gilbert’s operation.

Work on six apartment complexes, 17 town homes, a slew of carriage houses and a block of duplexes was divvied up among five architecture firms to keep the development from feeling sterile and contrived, Dittmer said.

The new structures will lack the pitched roofs and asymmetrical shapes of Brush Park’s historic Victorian homes — including four to be restored on Alfred. Instead, plans call for color palettes and building guidelines following “abstractly contextual” design elements that will subtly refer to the existing structures.

The modern designs already have received praise. The company and team of firms won the grand prize at the Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Awards for plans that are “expertly designed, respects its neighborhood’s history and includes living options that will welcome diverse residents and families.”

The plans simultaneously revive one of Detroit’s most storied neighborhoods and lay the groundwork for large-scale development in the city.

“This is unprecedented for the city of Detroit,” Dittmer said.

But Lauren Hood, commissioner with the Detroit Historic District Commission, said she’s leery about the scope of the project, even though she voted in February to allow the developers to make exterior changes to land and buildings in the historic district.

“It made me uncomfortable because we were doing a sweeping approval,” Hood said. “It concerned me that we were, with one vote, redesigning this classically historic neighborhood.”

Hood stressed that she is not against the modern design scheme, only the process by which the plans were approved.

Dittmer said the Detroit City Council voting and approval process isn’t suited for such large-scale projects.

“No one is used to this scale of development and how to talk about it and then how to review and approve it,” Dittmer said. “We’re the first at this sort of scale, and we’re not going to be the last.”

Dittmer said she and the company were transparent during their nearly four-hour meeting with the Historic Commission. The developers now need to submit permits to begin work on the site.

“We’re not going anywhere and our reputation is on the line,” she said. “We know the right way to do things, and we certainly know the wrong way to do things.”

The plan was built on requests made by Mona Ross-Gardner, a board member of the the Brush Park Community Development Corp., that sought new mixed-use residential and retail buildings that don’t interfere with or destroy the historic buildings still standing within the 8.4-acre zone.

Ross-Gardner, chairwoman of the corporation and a 27-year resident of Brush Park, said Brush Park has been “desolate” for too long, and that redevelopment should have happened a long time ago.

“Once it’s all put together, it’s actually a good look,” she said, referencing neighborhoods in Chicago and Boston that have a mixture of historic and new buildings.

Ross-Gardner said that, so far, she trusts the developers and the city to meet her concerns.

“We’re working with them and keeping an eye on things,” she said.

According to Marvin Beatty, a partner in the Brush Park Development Co., the plans relied heavily on community engagement.

The six apartment buildings will have about 20,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space to be filled with restaurants, shopping and convenience stores, he said. Plans for affordable and senior housing units come straight from community feedback.

But the modern buildings will drastically change the face of the neighborhood, which looks more like an urban prairie than a downtown neighborhood. Hood, who rents an apartment in Brush Park, said she has mixed feelings about the coming changes.

The remaining Victorian mansions — four of which will be restored — stand out among the vacant lots. Hood said she likes that because it makes the neighborhood feel like a hidden gem just a few blocks from downtown.

“It was a magical place,” Hood said. “Now it’s just going to be another neighborhood in the city. “I know that’s unrealistic to think that it was never going to get developed.”

The developers say they hope to create a neighborhood that is approachable for both prospective Detroiters and those who have lived in the city for a while.

“People who buy and rent here will be the absolute benefactors,” Beatty said. “We don’t want to just do the same old thing. We never did.”

The influx of investment in Brush Park isn’t frightening to Ross-Gardner. She feels the city and developers are “conscious of what they need to do to rebuild this city.”

She doesn’t anticipate being pushed out of the neighborhood she’s called home for so long.

But for now, Ross-Gardner is relying on “a lot of faith” in those rebuilding the city to include longtime Detroiters in their plans.

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Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau