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Detroit's Eastern Market looks to keep identity as developments sprout up

Candice Williams
The Detroit News
Annaya Watkins and her husband Michael buy produce at Eastern Market on October 27.

Detroit — With its industrial environment and gritty charm, the city's Eastern Market neighborhood survived during a time when development was stagnant — even as similar markets in other cities disappeared.

Now with development booming in the city and moving outward from the central business district, officials are working on a plan for the neighborhood to keep the core market intact and maintain the area’s identity.

The plan comes as at least two new developments are being proposed in the area — a $70 million "gateway" project featuring housing and retail, and a mixed-use development on the site of the former Joe Muer Seafood restaurant on Gratiot. 

“Our mandate is to try to find ways to preserve and enhance the asset of a neighborhood and make sure that any planning outcome benefits a neighborhood,” said Maurice Cox, the city’s planning director.

“Eastern Market is a very unique neighborhood because it’s such a job center. It has commercial and residential intermixed. It has the core market, which is a concentration of food-business jobs, and we want to keep that intact, and we want to enhance it.”

The city, with its partner the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., began earlier this year creating a strategic framework for the neighborhood. The plan will spell out short- and long-term goals.

There have been eight meetings: four with stakeholders and four with the public. The next stakeholder meeting will take place in December when the city and the DEGC will review recommendations, said Catherine Frazier, senior real estate manager for the DEGC. A date for that meeting has not been set.

The Detroit Wholesale Produce building on the corner of Riopelle at Adelaide will feature street-level store fronts and second-floor residential units at Eastern Market.

For the purposes of the framework study, the area is bounded by Gratiot to the south, Joseph Campau to the east, Warren Avenue to the north and Interstate 75 to the west. The historic core is considered Gratiot to the south, I-75 to the west, Mack to the north and St. Aubin to the east.

“We recognize whatever we do in the core is going to have an impact in areas that are both kind of residential and multiple places where the market has located that is north of Mack that may have more food processing uses in it,” Cox said. “... When you’re negotiating issues of how you preserve the core, you have to take into account a larger geography that will be impacted.”

Affordable housing

There are several developments that are or will be in the pipeline for the Eastern Market area. Among them are Develop Detroit’s plans for its $70 million Eastern Market Gateway project, a mixed-use development that will have 235 new residential units, including live-work units. The plan, to be completed by 2020, aims for 40,000 square feet of retail and 200 structured parking spaces. It will sit in the area bounded by Gratiot, Russell, Maple and Rivard.

The project serves as a link between Eastern Market and Lafayette Park. It will include 60 percent of housing at market rate, 20 percent of affordable housing at 80 percent average median income and 20 percent of housing with rates set below that, said Sonya Mays, president and CEO of Develop Detroit. 

As for the retail component, Mays said she wants to bring amenities to the neighborhood that will respond to residents' daily needs.

"We're working with Colliers to lease the spaces and we've asked them to focus on a blend of local entrepreneurs, local retailers and national chains," she said. "So our vision is that there will be mix there."

Eastern Market artist renderings

Develop Detroit plans to preserve the facades of some of the buildings in the area. For example, a portion of the former Busy Bee Hardware’s warehouse will be incorporated into the design.

“Where we could, we’re keeping portions of the buildings and fitting them into the overall design of the development,” she said. “There’s a lot of history in that area to begin with. When you think about how long Eastern Market has been operating, it has been an operating industrial site for decades before falling into disuse. This is an organization. We think it’s important to try to preserve as much of that history and legacy of these longstanding Detroit neighborhood.”

Also coming to the area is developer the Platform's mixed-use development at 1920 Gratiot, the former site of Joe Muer Seafood.

The design phase is underway for the project that will feature more than 200 units, 15 townhomes, 40,000 square feet of retail and 150 parking spaces. Developers have not yet released renderings for the project, as they say they want to first get feedback from the community. Construction is expected to begin in mid-2019, said Myles Hamby, development manager for the Platform.

The Eastern Market area is an attractive location for the development, Hamby said.

"We think the Eastern Market and the Dequindre Cut are two of the most democratic places in the city of Detroit," he said. "The city, the suburbs — whatever your background is, whatever your income level is ... we want to bring that type of authenticity into our site."

'The first rebirth'

Eastern Market was originally for hay and wood sales in Cadillac Square, according to the Detroit Historical Society. Sales sheds were built in 1891 and the market moved to its current location. More sheds were built in 1922 and 1929. The market became focused on wholesale food at the end of World War II. In 1978, the Eastern Market Historic District was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

The market continues to serve as food hub with more than 150 food and specialty businesses in the open-air market. About 5,700 people are employed within 1.2 square miles of the market, according to the city.

On any given weekend, shoppers can purchase fresh produce, flowers and meats from Michigan farmers, all within a short walking distance. The aroma from restaurants often fills the air.  Street performers play instruments or sing. .

There’s a diversity among both the vendors and patrons at the market. For decades, singles, families and empty-nesters have flocked to the area during regular market hours and for special events such as the annual Flower Day in May or the Holiday Market in November and December.

“People have a lot of wonderful experiences in Eastern Market,” Frazier said. “There’s a lot of emotional and sentimental attachment to the area."

One of the anchors of the Eastern Market neighborhood is the Historic Trinity Lutheran Church, founded in 1850 and at its present location at Gratiot in Rivard since 1866. The area used to have many residents who walked or took a horse and carriage to church, said the Rev. Darryl Andrzejewski.

Over time, people began moving farther up Gratiot with the advent of the automobile, he said. The congregation is now largely commuters with some coming from as far away as Port Huron and Ann Arbor.

Andrzejewski said he’s looking forward to retail and housing coming to the neighborhood and the people it will bring. He’s met with Develop Detroit to give input on the project.

“We are 100 percent behind them,” Andrzejewski said. “From a church perspective, it’s always great to have people living nearby. We’ve been here for a very long time. … This is really kind of the first rebirth we’ve seen in the Eastern Market area in terms of residents in probably 100 years. That’s very exciting.”

Eastern Market artist renderings

Maintaining market access

Development in Eastern Market will have some challenges, officials said. A plan for the neighborhood will consider routes for trucks for access to the core market area. It will also consider bicycle routes and pedestrian flow.

"The mobility question is one that comes up in each setting, whether it's the residents saying we don’t want any more trucks and the businesses saying we need trucks to operate our businesses,” Frazier said. “How do you define the space? What's best for both of those user groups? ... It's the balancing of that pressure point." 

One street, Riopelle, will receive improvements from Adelaide to the I-75 service drive. Construction will take place in 2019 and consist of removing curbs, making it easier for trucks to access businesses and at times provide more space for pedestrian traffic.

The city does not believe residents should live in the midst of Eastern Market sheds, Cox said. A key location for new housing appears to be along the Dequindre Cut, which runs southeast of Eastern Market. That may involve changing land use along the former railroad line that has become a recreational amenity, he said. Examples are the developments by the Platform and Develop Detroit.

“So far, those are the most two concrete responses to the emerging recommendations of where residential, retail mixed-use will emerge out of this plan,” Cox said.

'Higher prices'

During the year, there has been buying activity within the core of Eastern Market. Most notably is the father-and-son duo Linden and Sanford Nelson.

This year, according to records, the real estate investors have spent at least $20 million purchasing numerous buildings in the market area, including ones that house the Signal-Return letterpress shop on Division Street and Supino Pizzeria and Bert's Market Place both of Russell Street. The Nelsons did not respond to comment for this story.

"Buildings are selling at much higher prices than they were previously," said Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Corp.

Dan Carmody, right, president of Eastern Market Corp., watches Efe Bes perform a drum solo in Shed 3 at Eastern Market on Saturday October 27, 2018. 
Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

Carmody has led the nonprofit for more than a decade with a mission to preserve and expand the market. In 2016, the corporation released the Eastern Market 2025 Strategy, which officials said they have built upon for the city's strategic framework study. 

"In 2015 and 2016, we saw this trend coming so we developed a strategy to try to retain the character of the Eastern Market district despite an abrupt change in the tenor of the real estate development patterns in the center city of Detroit. ...We recognized that if we wanted to keep a significant amount of food businesses, we needed to do two things. We needed to retain those larger businesses that have popped up around the market over the last 125 years and attract and keep new ones."

That led to the corporation advocating for the expansion of the market to the north, an area with a lot of vacancy. 

As an example of recent growth for the market, JPMorgan Chase & Co. recently announced an investment of $1 million into Eastern Market Corp. to create two new cost-controlled kitchens for small businesses that have outgrown smaller spaces.

The Wolverine Packing Co. on Rivard Street will expand with a 144,000-square-foot facility at Dequindre and Canfield, just north of the Pepsi plant. 

Carmody said it’s the corporation’s goal to do development with a limited displacement of existing businesses. For many years, business operators in the area have enjoyed low rents, he said.

The former Busy Bee Hardware store on Gratiot at Russell, a multi-generational business, sold earlier this year after the previous owners operated the business for 100 years. The surge in real estate prices afforded the family to not operate a hardware store anymore and do other things, Carmody said. The property sold in January for $900,000, according to city property records. It will become mixed use for retail and residential, according to Detroit-based Basco of Michigan.

Eastern Market artist renderings

The corporation has worked with businesses to create succession plans. For example, Wigley’s Meats & Produce on Russell became Frank's Meat & Produce, which provides similar offerings for customers, including Wigley's Corned Beef.

When the Roma Café on Riopelle closed in 2017 after 127 years, the executive chef for the restaurant reopened it under the name Amore da Roma.

Carmody notes that similar markets like Eastern Market, such as those in Chicago and New York City, have closed. They were victims of development.

The Detroit market’s survival can be attributed in part to the fact that up until recently, there hadn’t been much desire to develop in the area, Cox said.

“I’m thankful that every day the planning department has been able to build up the capacity to plan for those businesses who stayed and those residents who stayed,” Cox said.

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN