Gilbert’s new project spurs ‘vertical era’ in Detroit

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Detroit — Brush Park’s face-lift is the beginning of a new era in Detroit, says real estate developer and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert.

Gilbert, who has been buying and renovating skyscrapers in downtown Detroit, spoke briefly Tuesday at a groundbreaking event for his 20-building mixed-use City Modern project, which will occupy 8.4 acres of mostly vacant land in the Brush Park neighborhood just north of downtown.

It’s a massive project, the total cost of which has ballooned from $70 million when the project was announced in May 2015 to more than $100 million as of Tuesday. The development is the second Gilbert-backed ground-up construction project to break ground in Detroit’s greater downtown this year. Crews started work on a 218-unit apartment building downtown several months ago.

It’s the start of the “vertical era,” Gilbert said Tuesday. By “vertical,” he meant new construction as opposed to renovation of existing structures.

“We’re going to build a lot of stuff in Detroit,” Gilbert said at the Tuesday event, quipping that the greater downtown needs more “cranes” on the skyline as evidence of vertical growth.

“We’ve got to get this town vertical, if you know what I’m saying,” he said.

City Modern, which will take three to four years to complete, is the first of a handful of pending development projects to break ground in Detroit neighborhoods.

Within a year, similar projects aimed at revamping housing stock in Detroit’s Fitzgerald and North Corktown neighborhoods could begin. Gilbert is working on designs for a huge mixed-use building planned for the vacant site formerly occupied by J.L. Hudson on Woodward, which will break ground in April.

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Mixed use development

Though City Modern isn’t the first ground-up project started in Detroit — construction started on the $65-million, 270-apartment Orleans Landing development a year ago on the east riverfront, and The Scott at Brush Park apartment complex will open in a few days — it is the largest.

City Modern is a mixture of apartment complexes, carriage homes, townhomes and duplexes, all of which should be finished by 2020. Once complete, there will be 410 new units of housing and 22,000 square feet of retail space standing on what’s currently urban prairie.

Steve Rosenthal, a principal of Gilbert’s Bedrock real estate company and head of the Gilbert-backed Brush Park Development Co. that’s managing the City Modern project, said crews will start work on the southwest end of the site next week. From there, they will work east along Alfred Street before construction moves north. The buildings will be occupied as they’re completed, Rosenthal said.

Six apartment complexes, 17 townhouses, some duplexes and a number of carriage houses comprise City Modern. All have a modern design scheme that contrasts with the Victorian mansions in the neighborhoods. The project will also renovate four Victorian homes on Alfred.

The first tenants in the new neighborhood should move in around early 2018, Rosenthal said.

In total, 107 of the new residences will be for sale. The other 303 residences will be rental units.

Gilbert, Rosenthal and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan echoed each other Tuesday about the project.

“It’s another major step forward for Detroit,” Duggan said, adding the Brush Park neighborhood was recently a favorite spot for those looking to document evidence of Detroit’s decay only a few blocks from the city’s stadiums.

The Michigan State Housing Development Authority awarded the project about $10 million in federal funding over 10 years from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help subsidize 54 units of low-income senior housing housing.

Spurred by TV show

The City Modern concept began to take shape when renovations by “Rehab Addict” host Nicole Curtis wrapped on the historic Ransom Gillis house on the corner of Alfred and John R last year.

Designs in the Gilbert-backed projects have set a precedent for other potential projects planned for the historic neighborhood. The neighborhood, once noted for its Victorian mansions with pitched roofs and turrets, will see buildings following what architects on the project call “abstractly contextual” design elements that subtly refer to the existing houses in the neighborhood.

“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,” Melissa Dittmer, director of architecture and design at Bedrock Detroit, the real estate development arm of Gilbert’s operations, told The Detroit News over the summer.

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 judges said are “expertly designed, respects its neighborhood’s history and includes living options that will welcome diverse residents and families.”

Since details of City Modern were presented, other Brush Park projects have taken cues from Gilbert’s team on how to design their buildings.

In July, John Rhea, managing partner of Rheal Capital Management, said his $65 million Brush Park South project will build carriage houses and townhomes on about four acres immediately south of City Modern. Rhea said his buildings will be a “mirror image” of Gilbert’s.

And Dittmer said Tuesday that’s because her team’s designs set the pace. “It’s been two years of really hard work,” she said. “We did a good job. We were thoughtful with context ... these are just good practices.”

City Modern extends Gilbert’s work outside downtown’s central business district. Through Bedrock, the businessman owns and manages more than 90 buildings in Detroit.

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Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau