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Detroit —M-1 Rail may be a year away from ferrying passengers from downtown to Midtown, but housing developments already are popping up along the Woodward Avenue route: an early sign the streetcar service could play a major role in eradicating blight along the 3.3-mile line.

It’s been a hard-fought battle to fund and create the M-1 Rail. While critics predict it will end up a costly mistake, boosters say it will be a game changer that will produce dense, walkable districts.

“We went to Portland, Minneapolis, Denver and San Diego and ... we were told light rail was the single dominating economic event that took their cities to the top,” said Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Quicken Loans Inc. and a prime mover in downtown Detroit’s resurgence.

The public transit system will travel on Woodward from Congress Street downtown to West Grand Boulevard just past New Center. Much of that stretch is under major construction in preparation for the streetcars’ debut as early as fall 2016.

Within 10 years, its supporters contend, the M-1 Rail will drive $3 billion in development and 10,000 housing units, filling the yawning gaps of dead buildings and empty lots along Detroit’s most storied street.

“You would really have to go back to the high point of Victorian times to find another era when that stretch of Woodward had plenty of housing,” said Rebecca Binno Savage, a historical preservationist for the Detroit firm Kraemer Design Group.

“Picture the David Whitney mansion: That’s when it peaked as a residential street,” she said.

David Whitney was a lumber baron who lived large and exquisitely in a 22,000-square-foot mansion at 4421 Woodward. His palatial home is now The Whitney restaurant.

Near the 12 stops along M-1’s route, at least 10 housing plans are in the works. Some are still on the drawing board and others will be open by the end of the year. They include:

■A 300-unit complex is intended on the site of the parking lot in front of Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers. That project is being spearheaded by Olympia Development of Michigan, the real estate arm of Ilitch Holdings Inc. The Ilitches, who own the Tigers, also are behind the plan to overhaul 45 blocks north of downtown. The area includes the Red Wings arena being built along Woodward and will have an M-1 Rail stop.

■A 200-unit housing project is slated for an empty lot in Brush Park, developed by the principals of Broder & Sachse Real Estate Services Inc. in Birmingham.

■Also, 250 residential units are part of the huge plans for the former Hudson’s site, which will include 225,000 square feet of mixed-use space and 900 parking spaces. That project is being developed by Gilbert.

The rail project also is drawing investments in smaller buildings, key to erasing the pockets of blight that still plague Woodward.

Plans for the Junction

“M-1 Rail has a lot to do with the investment we are seeing, and the kind of investment we are seeing hasn’t happened in years,” said Richard Rubens, who is with the community group Friends of Milwaukee Junction.

Milwaukee Junction is a neighborhood north of New Center. In the past two years, at least a dozen buildings there have changed ownership. Many of those buildings were empty. Plans for them include both commercial and residential development.

Rubens said construction of M-1 Rail has convinced some investors that Milwaukee Junction will be “the next big neighborhood,” as residents and businesses get priced out of Midtown and downtown.

One of the smaller planned developments is a $2 million conversion of an empty two-story warehouse across the street from the Amtrak station as well as from a future M-1 Rail stop. The warehouse at 207 E. Baltimore, on the corner of Woodward, was bought in the county’s tax foreclosure auction two years ago. Plans are underway to convert it to 12 rental lofts by developers Edward Siegel and James Feagin.

In other parts of Woodward, the anticipation over the public transit line has allowed Joel Landy, a longtime local developer, to convert two long-empty structures into apartment and retail complexes. One of those buildings, at Woodward and Peterboro, has been only a facade for years, Landy said. The other building is near Woodward and the I-94 service drive, he said.

“M-1 is not the only factor, but it is one of the big ones, why banks will finance my projects,” Landy said. Both two-story buildings will each get a $1.1 million overhaul. Both will offer market rate rents for the apartments, ranging from $900 to $1,400 a month, depending on the size of the unit.

Efficiency expected

What convinced Landy to invest now is the way many people talk about M-1 Rail, he said.

“The difference between the bus and M-1 Rail is no one wants to take the bus,” Landy said. “You have no idea how long you will wait for the bus. But people are excited about M-1 Rail; their expectations are completely different. They expect it will be efficient, and you can tell it can attract a wide range of people who plan to use it.”

laguilar@detroitnews.com

Twitter: LouisAguilar_DN

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