Shipping container projects spread out in Detroit

Several groups and individuals are using shipping containers to launch new dining, entertainment and residence options

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — Cardboard, markers and utility knives in hand, a mix of high school and college students formed an assembly line inside a 30,000-foot industrial space in Corktown.

As two students traced images projected onto cardboard, four others held the boards steady. Once finished, runners rushed the boards to the cutters.

“I feel like Henry Ford of the terraform couches,” joked their professor, Steve Coy, overseeing production at Detroit incubator Ponyride, where entrepreneurs in fashion, woodworking and retail bring their ideas to life.

The cutouts will eventually become sod couches people can lounge on outside at an 11-shipping container development that will debut in Detroit’s Dequindre Cut between Division and Wilkins streets in early July.

Funded by $300,000 in grants from Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit and Knight Cities Challenge, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and Philadelphia-based design group Groundswell have partnered with the students to develop what will become one of the first major public-use projects in the city using shipping containers.

Shipping containers have become a go-to building block in the city as of late. Other works in progress include: a two-floor, indoor-outdoor space featuring five restaurants in Midtown called the Detroit Shipping Co.; a three-level mixed-use space in Corktown; a shipping container house available to rent on Airbnb; and condos in Corktown and Woodbridge.

An educational maritime shipping container will also debut outside the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority, and a shipping container restaurant and bar, Fountain Detroit, will return to Campus Martius Park in May.

The Dequindre Cut project, called the Dequindre Cut Freight Yard, near Eastern Market will include a play area, shaded pavilions, hub for live entertainment and retail area for local entrepreneurs to sell food and products.

It’s the brainchild of Slows BBQ owner Phillip Cooley and Coy, a Lawrence Technological University graphic design professor. The two developed a design and entrepreneurship course for LTU and Detroit Western International High School students to gain design experience and create something for their community.

“A lot of times in Detroit, we tend to export our best talent,” Coy said. “I think what it means to make it here is to get the hell out. This is an opportunity for me to show these guys they can have a significant impact in their neighborhood.”

Cooley, an LTU College of Architecture and Design adjunct faculty member who co-founded Ponyride, said shipping container developments have popped up in cities nationwide. The containers typically run $1,700-$2,100, but Cooley noted an increase in supply has driven down their prices, making them a cost-effective material for construction. Reusing discarded containers is also an environmentally conscious move.

With the Dequindre Cut Freight Yard, 14 college and nine high school students are gaining knowledge around an increasingly popular material, Cooley added, explaining many plan to continue working on the containers as volunteers after the semester ends in early May.

Detroit resident Jessica Chairez, a 17-year-old Western International senior, has taken the class — a three-credit college elective — in the past three years.

“It’s one of those classes I think every high school student should take,” she said at the Detroit Center for Design and Technology, where the students finalized design plans earlier this month. “... I go into a restaurant and instead of seeing the menu, I see the decorations and interior — what did they do to bring people in? So this class has helped me see the world in another view.”

The 450-foot-long freight yard, expected to operate until September and return next summer, will be a space like the riverfront where “everyone feels welcome and comes together,” said Mark Wallace, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

Detroit Shipping Co.

Four years ago, Jonathan Hartzell sketched on a napkin five shipping containers plopped in a vacant Detroit lot. He passed the drawing to his wife, explaining his vision for micro-businesses where people could walk up and buy food and drinks. That vision has since ballooned into a 21-container facility comprising 8,000 square feet.

“It went from a charming little thing to ‘let’s go for it,’ ” he said.

In early May, the Detroit Shipping Co. is expected to break ground at 474 Peterboro in Midtown. Hartzell, a Royal Oak resident, and his partners have signed on four of five restaurants: Detroit Dog Co., Monty’s Beef Company, Brujo Tapas and Tacos, and COOP by Detroit native chef Maxcel Hardy, a runner-up on the Food Network’s “Chopped.” There will also be two bars, a stage for live entertainment and art gallery on the second floor.

Hartzell, who has a background in restaurant design, said he hopes the Detroit Shipping Co. will be a gathering place where groups can dine and stroll around.

“You can say, ‘Hey I’m walking around with my taco or my hot dog. I’m looking at something, and I’m not just sitting in a seat drinking a beer. I’m actually experiencing a space,’ ” he said.

Originally slated to open last year, Hartzel ran into a few delays with the property. The new goal is to open by Sept. 1.

Port Authority

At least one shipping container downtown is dedicated to educating the public.

The 8- by 20-foot navy shipping container with portholes materialized outside the Port Authority, adjacent to the riverfront, due to a concern of John Loftus, the port’s executive director.

“The public in Detroit and southeast Michigan have really lost sight of the importance of the port in the local community, what this river means to our economy and the fact that some of those ships they see going by are actually stopping here in Detroit and Wayne County,” Loftus said.

A year ago, he started talking with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy about installing an educational kiosk with information about the port’s history and local maritime industry. A computer screen would display BoatNerd technology, so visitors could track the vessels passing by. Given the maritime theme, a shipping container seemed like the “logical” choice, Loftus said.

The container will be open to the public starting May 22 and operate the same hours as the riverfront. Loftus said he plans to keep it running until winter and reopen each April when the shipping season starts.


Corktown residents Nicole Stopka-Nichols, 30, and Chris Nichols, 31, have watched their neighborhood rapidly develop with new shops, restaurants and residences the past few years and decided to join in.

“We want to be part of it even more, instead of just living there,” said Stopka-Nichols, an automotive textiles account manager, originally from Germany.

The couple is purchasing from the city a 5,000-square-foot lot at 2420 Michigan across from Two James Spirits. They plan to construct a three-level, mixed-use building out of shipping containers: The first floor will be commercial space for a shop or art gallery; the second will house an apartment for rent; and the couple will live on the third.

Nichols, an interior designer at Ford Motor Co., devised the concept, and the two want to finish the project, called SteelHaus, by year’s end.

Detroit Container Group

Detroit visitors could rent an Airbnb in a duplex, or they could stay in a 320-foot-shipping container home, if Darin McLeskey’s vision comes to fruition.

The 26-year-old Detroit resident is a principal broker at Denovo Real Estate in Detroit. He’s working with Little Housing Systems in Sterling Heights to build a shipping container house he hopes to have available for rent by August.

McLeskey said he’s still determining the location — ideally near the QLine or bike-able to downtown — and wants the home to serve as a model when unoccupied, so people can tour it and order one for themselves.

“I could see myself developing several of these throughout the city,” he said.

He noted that instead of paying $1,400 a month for a one-bedroom in Midtown, a Wayne State University student may consider a shipping container home. He estimates monthly rent will be $800, or it will cost $55,000-$60,000 to purchase the home and a lot.

Little Housing Systems founder Jim Dunn said the one-level shipping container homes include a living room-kitchen area as well as a bathroom and bedroom, both 8 by 10 feet.

Three Squared Inc.

Three Squared Inc. has been at the forefront of shipping container fabrication in Detroit since siblings Leslie and Patric Horn formed the concept for the company in 2008.

Based in Detroit, the company specializes in using shipping containers for commercial and residential construction.

“We build faster, stronger and way more energy-efficient utilizing cargo architecture,” said Kelley Singler Fowler, vice president of operations.

In summer 2015, Three Squared completed a three-story condo complex using nine containers. The 2,800-square-foot model, called Trumbull Squared, is located at Trumbull and Pine and was featured on HGTV.

Phase two of the project includes two more condo complexes: Construction on Kaline Squared — featuring five stories, eight units and 28 containers — is expected to start this summer at the corner of Rosa Parks and Kaline. Rosa Parks Squared — a four-story, 26-32-unit with 96 containers — is also planned for the corner of Rosa Parks and West Warren.

Given Detroit’s history of fabrication, Singler Fowler said, “there is an enormous depth of knowledge and skill here that we’re able to tap into.”