Making over Detroit, street by street
Three years ago, Atkinson Street became a test case for a pair of successful millennials who wanted to see how much change they could create on one Detroit street by purchasing blighted homes and renovating them.
Their plan to focus on one street appears to be working and now city officials believe the pair’s work on Atkinson Street is a model that can be used to revive many Detroit neighborhoods.
Atkinson, which is just south of the enclave of historic mansions and stately homes of the Boston Edison neighborhood, is also one block from where the 1967 civic disturbances erupted at Clairmount Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard (formerly 12th Street).
The location and that symbolism were selling points for Andrew Colom and David Alade to move to the city and convince family and friends to invest in the embattled Detroit street. At the time, the city was still in the midst of Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
At the corner of Atkinson and Rosa Parks, the city is sprucing up Gordon Park to help mark the 50th anniversary of the events.
“It’s the history and the people. It’s connected to my history,” said Colom, 34, who is from small town Columbus, Mississippi. He was involved in real estate development there before moving to Detroit.
Sitting on the the porch of the first residence they bought on the street in 2014, Colom and Alade tried to explain the allure of Detroit.
A former Wall Street investment banker, Alade, 29, had covered Detroit’s Big Three automakers and would routinely visit the city. During the bankruptcy, he was struck by how many auto employees seemed determined to help the city.
“They didn’t talk about giving up,” Alade said. “They talked about how this city has many great things and it can be great again. That resiliency, that toughness, it was impressive, I wanted to be part of it.”
Alade and Colom, who met each other at Columbia University, formed Century Partners and began to focus on Atkinson. The street, like many in the city, had many longtime residents who kept up their homes amid a growing number of empty and blighted homes that didn’t survive the decades of Detroit’s population decline.
Their first property, a duplex, had sold in 1968 — one year after the civic disturbances — for $15,500, public records show. Century Partners bought the then-empty building 49 years later for $29,700, and have since renovated the property.
“To me, this city always meant modernity,” Alade said. “It has a high percentage of black home ownership. It was opportunity.”
Alade, a native of Jamaica, Queens, a borough of New York City, said Detroit’s creativity and its epic ups and downs always fascinated him.
Alade and Colom said they went to family, friends and others to raise “millions” because financial institutions would not invest on such a Detroit street.
Colom, who had lived for a while on Atkinson, said he and Alade knocked on the door of most of the residents there to explain their plans. They hired local contractors to oversee the work.
“We wanted to make sure everyone understood we’re not here to displace anyone, we’re here to help boost your own home value and help you stay,” Colom said.
Walking down Atkinson with a reporter recently, residents waved and stopped to talk to the pair.
So far, the team has fixed up 19 residential units in 10 properties. All but one of those properties were empty before the overhauls. In the sole occupied property, the resident was paying rent to someone who no longer owned the home, Alade said.
All of their properties are now occupied, with rents ranging from $500 to $1,500 a month.
Public records show they bought homes for as low as $6,000 and often in the mid-to-low $10,000’s.
Colom offered a historical perspective to their Detroit efforts.
“So many of the people came up here during the Great Migration,” Colom said, referring to the movement of an estimated 6 million African-Americans from the South in the 20th century. “And they didn’t really get a square deal. That kind of spoke to me.”
Colom said he thought they could help Detroiters get that square deal.
Century Partners has focused on Atkinson because, as Colom explained, “Detroit is street-by-street” intensive.
The strategy may be paying off. Currently, a house on the street, not owned by the pair, has a listing price of $145,000. Another sold last year for $105,000. And other investors have bought properties on the street and are fixing them up.
Colom and Alade are not the first developers to hone in on one Detroit neighborhood. There are many similar examples throughout the city. But Century Partner’s initial focus on one street is uncommon and it comes at a time when many in the city say it’s time to find a way to spread the boom times of “greater downtown” to the rest of Detroit.
City officials have taken notice. Century Partners was chosen recently to play a role in one of Detroit’s first tests at finding new uses for blocks of land cleared of blight. Century Partners and The Platform, another Detroit-based development group, have been selected to oversee the redo of 115 vacant homes over two years and landscape 192 vacant lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood on the northwest side.
The development project, called Fitz Forward, near Livernois and McNichols, will take place in an area where the city’s Detroit Land Bank had taken control of most of the properties, knocked down some abandoned homes and pitched the entire area as one single development opportunity.
“We are going to create a quarter square mile of Detroit that is blight free,” said Maurice Cox, head of the city’s Planning and Development Department, during a news conference last month announcing the plan.
“As simple as it is appears, I think its revolutionary in Detroit,” said Cox, who praised Alade and Colom as having the vision and talent the city needs to bring new life to its neighborhoods.
Mayor Mike Duggan described the plan as a case of the opposite of gentrification. “We are going to keep the families here while improving the neighborhoods,” the mayor said.
If the model works, he added, the city could try to use the plan in other areas.