Howes: Two Detroits compete to shape comeback narrative

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The symbolism could hardly be more jarring.

Bedrock rendering of Shinola hotel; Willye Pearsall, former principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, who received 15 months in prison after pleading guilty of taking $50,000.

On the day yet three more Detroit Public Schools principals are sentenced for their parts in a scheme to defraud the district and enrich themselves, two icons of a new Detroit confirm plans to build a 130-room boutique hotel on the northeast corner of Grand River and Woodward.

In the week activists file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state and Gov. Rick Snyder for failing to provide Detroit’s kids access to a public education, Shinola and Dan Gilbert’s Bedrock Real Estate Services say their partnership will create a “living room for business travelers” that is a “thoughtfully curated hospitality experience specially designed for their hometown.”

Welcome to Detroit-in-transition, where vestiges of the old and sprouts of the new are both real, each vying for a narrative that is neither straightforward nor simple — and won’t be anytime soon. It’s a major American city where public education, namely the teaching of its young, is corrupted by grasping adults and mismanaged by state bureaucrats who seize control of a system they fail to fix.

It’s also a place where a mortgage impresario like Gilbert, chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. and a family of affiliated companies, invests some $2.2 billion in downtown real estate. He repeatedly leverages his wallet and business interests to attract New York investors and hot brands like Nike, John Varvatos and, now, Shinola into yet another one of his destination ventures.

Neither reality can be denied. Not the enthusiasm and business-and-investment community me-tooism sparked by Gilbert’s investment, his vision and his bias for action. Buy it all, in part or not at all, the Gilbert bandwagon is recasting the image of Detroit here and elsewhere, turning doubters into (cautious) believers.

And not the fact that public education in Detroit, a necessary building block for any functioning democracy, is a disgrace and an indictment. Its recurring incompetence is a disincentive to families with school-aged children, households that form the bedrock of stable communities occupied by taxpayers and law-abiding citizens.

The wonder is that it’s taken this long for prosecutors to root out corruption, or for someone to file a civil rights lawsuit against the state and whoever else for the generally deplorable state of Detroit’s public schools. Add the chronic inability to show academic results, and you get a key reason that an economic reinvention partly powered by Gilbert & Co. can only be partially realized.

This is a fundamental hurdle. Jobs in Detroit go wanting for Detroiters if their DPS secondary education fails to give them the skills to compete, and if folks refuse to recognize that education also needs the active participation of parents, students, even the business community.

Rising above this milieu are the Ilitch Family’s District Detroit development, Gilbert’s myriad housing and redevelopment projects and the Shinola Hotel venture, among others. The 130-room effort, expected to open in the fall of 2018, is another critical piece of Bedrock’s reimagination of a retail district lining Woodward south of Grand Circus Park.

The hotel would be at least the fifth so-called boutique hotel venture for downtown, a note the planners carefully finessed in their Wednesday statement confirming the project: “While Detroit has seen the launch of new hotels over the last few years,” said Dan Mullen, executive vice president of Bedrock, “we still see a gap in the boutique hotel market.”

Whether the Detroit of two years from now — and a national economy running at a relatively low-growth pace — can produce the demand for so many new hotel properties remains to be seen. But there’s no question that Gilbert is not the only one betting that a revitalization now passing into its sixth year is showing signs of sustainability.

Rival hotel projects are planned at the Metropolitan and Wurlitzer buildings between Broadway and Woodward; an Aloft hotel is now operating inside the renovated David Whitney Building; and plans are underway to transform the historic Detroit Fire Department headquarters at Larned and Washington Boulevard near Cobo Center into a Foundation Hotel.

“Yeah, there are several of these coming,” says a source familiar with the Shinola project and downtown development. “Which is the way in a big city.”

More than its would-be competitors, the Shinola Hotel is a bid to capitalize on a uniquely (if only 5-year-old) Detroit brand as part of a reimagined and rebuilt retail district in the Lower Woodward corridor. With NewYork’s NoHo Hospitality Group working the food and beverage end of the project, the intent clearly is to deliver a “cool” — and branded — Detroit experience.

But it would only be a piece of that experience. Another chunk is playing out this week in federal court, and it’s not pretty. It’s real, too.


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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.