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Entrepreneur sees Detroit as his land of opportunity

Louis Aguilar
DetroitNews-Unknown

Detroit — Sometimes that dream of buying cheap Detroit land and striking entrepreneurial gold does come true.

Philip Kafka, a young New York City investor who began buying vacant industrial buildings and weedy lots in the Motor City five years ago, is starting to overhaul the blight into catalyst developments that help transform their neighborhoods. One of his first projects was Katoi, the Thai-fusion restaurant in a former auto-repair shop in Corktown that garnered national acclaim within its first year.

Emerging now on the border between the Core City and Woodbridge neighborhoods is a village of nine Quonset huts near Grand River and Warren Avenue. The half-cylinder structures made of corrugated steel were designed by Edwin Chan, a Los Angeles architect with world-class credentials.

 

Quonset huts were originally cheap structures built by the military during World War II. Kafka’s development, known as True North, is his take on sustainable, affordable housing that he hopes becomes an incubator for entrepreneurs and artists in the city.

The 30-year-old says he could not imagine doing what he’s doing in any other American city. One reason is the price of Detroit properties: Public records show Kafka has accumulated more than six acres of land for around $400,000. He’s spent considerably more to transform them.

Kafka, who founded a successful billboard company in New York City, began exploring various cities for investments about five years ago. He wanted creative freedom, and that meant spending his own money. He visited Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Charleston before deciding to focus solely on the Motor City.

Over the past few years, he’s spent his life savings investing in Detroit. He splits his time between Detroit and New York.

Many Detroiters are willing to partner and help make his ideas come true.

“I tapped into a wonderful, open community,” he said. “I’m not doing any of this alone. I meet so many passionate people here; it’s one of the best parts of this experience.”

The restaurant Katoi, at 2520 Michigan, is a good example of his partnerships. It’s in squat cinder-block building Kafka bought for $35,000 in 2013, public records show. He co-owns the business with chef Brad Greenhill, who created the menu, and Courtney Henriette, who oversees the marketing, manages the front of the house and maintains the “great culture of the place,” Kafka said.

Kakfa said he was lucky to find Greenhill and Henriette at the right time — he met the pair when they were operating a food truck. “Courtney and Brad really tied me into a community and helped me get my footing in Detroit.”

Kafka owns a big chunk of property around Grand River at Warren. His holdings include several empty lots where the Quonset huts are being built, two vacant industrial buildings, another former auto repair shop, and the building that’s home to Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit at 4815 15th St.

His neighbors have been receptive to the development. Kafka lives in a prototype hut that’s already completed, and recently a neighbor visited: “He’s a retired city bus driver. I was playing Miles Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool.’ He was like, ‘I thought this was crazy. Now I think it’s so great.’ That was a great moment.”

He also credits City of Detroit’s Planning Department for being receptive to the idea.

True North will have nine huts with heated cement floors, and wood floors and ceilings. The grounds will have vegetable and flower gardens as well as security measures — the neighborhood isn’t exactly trendy at the moment.

“It’s kind of same philosophy as Katoi,” Kafka said of the Quonset village. “It’s kind of a rabbit-hole effect. You can never imagine what’s inside the building from the outside. We have people pulling up and asking it’s a greenhouse or a storage facility.”

He described the arc-shaped interiors this way: “The walls become the roof and the roof becomes the walls again. The ceilings are anywhere from 17 feet to 30 feet high. The space itself is more about volume and light.” The light comes from the front and back walls, which are made from polycarbonate and glass.

The units won’t be ready until spring but five of the nine have already been leased. One future tenant is a jewelry designer who has agreed to live in the space for at least three years with an option to sign for more, Kafka said.

Another is an event planner who recently hosted a private party for Quicken Loans employees in one of huts. “One of my motives is to get people into unique space, something beautiful and inspiring,” said Haley Lertola, owner of the business known as Detroit Cultivated. After staging the Quicken Loans event, she quickly approached Kafka to lease a hut for a personal living and work space.

“They have so much natural light,” said Lertola, 30, who currently lives in Ferndale. She intends to host monthly events in her space.

The huts are just the start for Kafka’s Grand River-area developments. He’s exploring another restaurant venture with his Katoi partners in a former radiator shop. Early next year, a Bay City firm called Populace Coffee will open a coffee-roasting plant on one of his Grand River buildings. Later in the year, Mendez Boxing, a New York-based boxing gym, aims to open.

laguilar@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN