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Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers district getting makeover

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Every day, a steady stream of vehicles heading downtown can be seen traveling along Jefferson Avenue near Chalmers from far east Detroit and the Grosse Pointes.

Nonprofit Jefferson East Inc. hopes revitalization efforts in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood will give people more reasons to stop, dine and shop.

Exterior of the Vanity Ballroom.***Decorative preservation of the long vacant Vanity Ballroom on the city’s east side.Detroit, Mi. September 23, 2017, (Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News)

The neighborhood along the Detroit River has multiple developments in the pipeline over the next year. Among them are three new restaurants and three rehabilitated apartment buildings along Jefferson. And there are plans to make storefront space available for businesses interested in the area, said Joshua Elling, director of Jefferson East.

“There’s a really big need, because this is one of the last few walkable neighborhood commercial districts in Detroit,” Elling said.

Jefferson East was founded in 1994 as the Jefferson East Business Association with the mission to bring retail to the neighborhood. The organization now represents a small collection of neighborhoods along the east Jefferson Corridor: Lafayette and Elmwood parks, Rivertown, the Villages, the Marina District and Jefferson Chalmers.

Two years ago, the organization leaders noticed the Jefferson Chalmers district wasn’t experiencing strong progress following the Great Recession.

“Market forces were kind of coming back to Rivertown and the Villages, but Jefferson Chalmers still had a lot of really large, abandoned buildings along Jefferson,” Elling said. “So we sat down and looked at what buildings Jefferson East owned, what buildings our partners owned and put together a multiple building redevelopment plan.”

Part of that plan was a new restaurant, Norma G’s Fine Caribbean Cuisine, set to open next month.

Owner Lester Gouvia, who was raised in Brooklyn and moved to Royal Oak 21 years ago, created his business in tribute to his mother.

William Bock, 50, paints the Vanity Ballroom. Efforts to revitalize the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood could bring the historic building back to life.

On a recent fall day, Gouvia watched as contractors worked at the 2,700-square-foot space at 14628 Jefferson, the former home of Jefferson East Inc. The facade would get an overhaul to let in more natural light and fresh air. Inside, the former bank building was gutted.

The dine-in restaurant will be a step up for Gouvia, who has operated a food truck by the same name since 2015. Before that, he participated in pop-ups and catered.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and nervous, but it keeps me balanced,” he said of the restaurant’s impending opening.

When the $1.1 million renovation is complete, Gouvia will rent the space from Jefferson East. The project is funded through a mix of tenant, private, philanthropic investment as well as funds from the city of Detroit for facade improvement.

Jefferson East Inc. is undergoing a $1.24 million renovation of a former Kresge store at 14300 Jefferson, which will become its new headquarters when it opens in summer 2018. The 6,200-square-foot building will also house a Mexican-Asian fusion, sit-down restaurant called Alma Kitchen. In the meantime, the nonprofit is housed in temporary offices at 300 River Place.

Also primed for redevelopment in the upcoming year are two mixed-income apartment buildings on Marlborough right off Jefferson. The Malborough Apartments north of Jefferson will feature 12 units with two or three bedrooms. The IDAO building south of Jefferson will have eight units with two or three bedrooms. Detroit-based Shelborne Development is expected to break ground on both developments before the end of the year, said company owner Kathy Makino-Leipsitz.

Makino-Leipsitz said she first fell in love with the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood about a decade ago. Since then, she’s purchased several buildings, including Chalmers Square, which includes two mixed-used buildings and a multi-family apartment building on Newport behind the vacant, historic Vanity Ballroom.

Makino-Leipsitz said she offered retail space as pop-up locations to draw businesses to the area. Then she offered free rent, followed by discounted rent. Among the tenants are a record shop and furniture store. All have since decided to stay, she said.

“Until we bring the commercial historic districts back, I think our residents suffer when you don’t have a walkable neighborhood where you can grab a cup of coffee,” she said.

The area is not without its challenges.

A swath of land just north of Jefferson is full of vacant property. The land was cleared in anticipation of the New Far East Side Development project that never materialized in the early 2000s. The land is still privately held.

Another issue for the area is what to do with the Vanity Ballroom on Jefferson at Newport. In an effort to deter vandals, the organization recently did a decorative preservation to secure the building.

Jefferson East hopes to first replace the nearly nonexistent roof and then figure out how best to use the building, which is estimated to cost about $11 million to $12 million to restore.

“When we polled neighborhood residents, they wanted to see a night-time entertainment district,” Elling said. “They want to see something that celebrated the African-American heritage in the area. They really wanted to see the ballroom come back in some way, shape or form. Some sort of public amenity, performance space. The challenge is that if you keep the ballroom intact, you can’t bake any housing into the project. It’s very hard to come up with a finance stack to redevelop.”

The Vanity Ballroom was built in 1929 and once featured six elaborate ballrooms to accommodate the area’s musicians and bands, according to the Detroit Historical Society. The ballroom closed in 1958, and after a brief reopening in 1964, it sat largely unused and went into disrepair. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and named a National Treasure in fall 2016. In July 2016, the Detroit City Council voted to transfer the ballroom to Jefferson East, Elling said.

The nonprofit was recently awarded a $34,000 grant through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority neighborhood enhancement program for the facade improvement of the Vanity Ballroom and to do exterior home repairs for a few homeowners on Chalmers. The nonprofit also continues to work on a $150,000 MSDHA grant it won to renovate the Norma G’s building and the Kresge building.

“From our perspective, that’s a very mixed neighborhood in terms of nice homes, homes look like they’re in in good shape. Some need work,” said Jess Sobel, a grants manager for the state of Michigan. “Doing work on Jefferson will help spark development.”

Construction on 'Norma G's' restaurant along E. Jefferson Ave in the Jefferson-Chalmers area of Detroit, Michigan on October 9, 2017. (Image by Daniel Mears / Detroit News).

Resident Jerry Mathis recently received exterior home repairs after two women knocked on doors informing residents of the program.

Mathis has lived in the Jefferson Chalmers area since 2006. His wife, Sharon, was cruising in the area when she spotted the house they would later call home. Many of the homes are stately two-story brick structures.

“Right before the recession, it wasn’t as vibrant as it is now,” Mathis said. “There was shooting in the area. Now the neighborhood is really vibrant and safe.”

Jefferson East funds an additional 10,000 hours annual of police patrols from the Detroit Police Department. It’s also working to ready the storefronts along Jefferson for businesses wanting to occupy them.

There is a waiting list of 21 businesses that have gone through training with Detroit’s entrepreneurship hub, TechTown, and are interested in locating in the Jefferson Chalmers area, said Derric Scott, economic development director for Jefferson East. The businesses include hair salons, a doggie treat store and a pastry shop.

The development efforts in the Jefferson Chalmers area are an example of what residents are looking for nowadays — walkable communities with amenities, said Stephanie Cegielski, spokeswoman for the New York City-based International Council of Shopping Centers.

“Everybody likes the convenience,” she said. “It sounds like it could be a great project. I think one of the things they need to consider who to put in there. What do the community residents want? What will they support? People like that outdoor, mixed-use, easy-to-walk-to environment.”

Cegielski said the focus should be on a mix of restaurants and shopping experiences, including local artisans.

Lisa Milton moved her furniture design business, Redesign and Restoration, from East English Village to a storefront on Jefferson three years ago. She said right now there’s light walk-in traffic, but she balances that by operating an online store.

She said she’s looking forward to having more business neighbors on Jefferson.

“For a lot of business owners, it’s hard to stabilize yourself when you do depend on local traffic and it’s slow,” she said. “We’re excited about having neighbors. When there are more things going on, people will come down here. It’ll become a destination stop.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN