In fast-changing 'Greater Corktown,' team of firms to shape growth

A plot of land under development at the intersection of Pine and Vermont, in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.

Detroit — A team of international firms — whose work ranges from designing the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture to hydrogen-powered public buses in England — is expected to help shape development in the fast-changing “Greater Corktown.” 

City officials notified area residents in early April that the team led by the Chicago-based firm Perkins + Will will create the “Greater Corktown Framework.” 

The team, made up of seven firms from a variety of disciplines, will soon begin a months-long campaign to determine what kind of development should be permitted and where; what spaces should remain open and be enhanced; what kind of infrastructure upgrades are needed; what kind of steps are needed to have some affordable housing, among other things.

City documents state the goal is to “create a framework that recognizes the great potential for inclusive growth of Detroit’s oldest established neighborhood while preserving its cultural integrity.”

Tricia Talley, president of the North Corktown Neighborhood Association, stands outside the Fountain Court Cooperative Apartments in Detroit.

The plan will cover about 1.4 square miles that include the historic Corktown neighborhood, North Corktown and parts of adjacent communities, mainly Hubbard Richard. The Corktown framework plan is one of at least a dozen initiatives launched by the city in the past few years to encourage widespread neighborhood investment — an issue that has long plagued Detroit. 

In Greater Corktown, the challenge is more about finding the balance between surging investment and rising concerns of longtime residents who fear they will get priced out of their neighborhood. 

For years, the area has been experiencing steady investment, mainly from small entrepreneurs, and climbing housing prices. But last year, real estate prices shifted into overdrive when Ford Motor Co. announced Corktown would be a hub for its mobility, autonomy and electrification technologies expected to radically change the industry. 

The selection of the Perkins + Will team has not been officially announced by the city. In an email sent by city officials in early April to residents, the city was “finalizing" the "scope of services” with the team “over the next couple of weeks." 

A plot of land under development at the intersection of Pine and Vermont, in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.

Perkins + Will officials said the team couldn't comment until the city made the agreement public. A spokesman for the city of Detroit didn't respond to emails or telephone calls for comment.

The team includes firms whose specialties range from historic preservation, urban planning, architectural design, landscape design, mobility issues and engineering. One firm, projects + PEOPLE, is the only one that's Detroit-based. The Detroit firm works on helping neighborhood development. 

The framework plan comes at a time when concerns about gentrification appear on the rise. 

Residential real estate prices in the area jumped as soon as news leaked in March 2018 that Ford wanted to buy the long-dead Michigan Central Depot. They show no sign of slowing, according to public property records.

As of February, residential real estate prices in the 48216 ZIP code had risen 14 percent to a median sale price of $137,250, compared to $119,500 in March 2018, according to Realcomp II Ltd., which is Michigan's largest real-estate listing service.

By comparison, home and condominium prices increased less than 1 percent annually from 2016 to the start of 2018, Realcomp II data shows.

Ford officially bought the train station in June for $90 million and announced plans for a $740 million renovation for its multiple Corktown properties. Ford is now one of the largest property owners in Corktown, according to public data. 

"I remember even the news of the potential Ford deal changed what people became interested in," said Tony Formosa, whose family has invested in Corktown properties for three generations.

Ford plans to open the doors of Central Depot in 2022 with 5,000 people expected to work there.

Intersections park at 12th and Martin Luther King Dr., in the Corktown neighborhood.

"I can't even predict how things will be when it opens," Formosa said.  

Unlike Corktown, North Corktown is marked by empty lots. Many are owned by the city’s Detroit Land Bank. The land bank is the public authority that controls tens of thousands of blighted and vacant properties throughout Detroit, making it the city's largest property owner.

The land bank owns 434 parcels in North Corktown. Only six of those are vacant structures, public records show, and the rest are vacant pieces of land.

The framework plan will likely determine what will happen to that empty North Corktown land, said Detroit Land Bank spokeswoman Alyssa Strickland. She said the land bank began to market some of the properties last year. 

"We will follow their lead," said Strickland of the framework's eventual suggestions. 

As president of the North Corktown Neighborhood Association, Tricia Talley has long been involved in planning her neighborhood’s future.

“Eventually, we want all of the neighborhoods to connect," Talley said. "I’m hoping that our neighborhood can serve as an example of what redevelopment can be when you involve the residents, and, you redevelop the neighborhood around the residents that are here.” 

Intersections park at 12th and Martin Luther King Dr., in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit.

Talley has lived in North Corktown since 1998 and likes that the area is quiet and secluded. But it needs amenities such as dry cleaners and beauty salons, she said. She’d also like to see an ordinance regarding urban farming.

North Corktown resident Paul Emery said he’s pleased with the selection of Perkins + Will. He heard the presentations of three finalists teams late last month.

“They were the only group that seemed to understand the one big issue: What to do with the city-owned property," Emery said. "They specifically mentioned that one of the things that needed to be figured out was how to equitably make use of all the city land. I thought that was pretty important.”

But Emery is concerned about the rising prices of new housing.

“If you look at what they’re charging for these condos that they’re talking about building; $200,000 for a condo is not something that me or most of the people on the neighborhood board could afford.”

Emery has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years and hopes the area will retain some of its green space. 

"We’re kind of a little island of people who moved here to get away from it all," he said. 

Maps of the Greater Corktown Framework project from the City of Detroit's website.