Historic district designation for Eastern Market gets mixed reaction

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — As the city embarks on a study that could lead to a local historic district designation for Eastern Market, there is mixed reaction about what it might mean for development in the area.

“My hope and desire is that we end up with a regulatory framework that is supportive of keeping the character of Eastern Market and the same time doesn’t do undue burden on people trying to do projects in Eastern Market,” said Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Partnership, the nonprofit that manages the market.

Interest in a local historic district was rekindled this summer after city officials received calls from citizens concerned about developer Sanford Nelson's plans to demolish a structure in the Eastern Market. The now-bustling historic area has an expansive farmers market, meat-packing houses, independent retailers, produce warehouses and locally owned restaurants co-existing side by side.

The concern is that long-time institutions will be pushed out by rising rents, and that chain restaurants and retailers will take their place and change the character of the area.

Eastern Market shoppers make their way through Shed 3 on Sunday morning.

FIRM Real Estate, owned by developer Nelson, has a growing portfolio of properties including 2701 Russell St., which he says he plans to demolish because it is not structurally sound. The property, which is actually four buildings, houses Mike Coney Island. Nelson says he has no plan for what will replace it.

Nelson, who began investing in the Eastern Market area with his father Linden Nelson in 2017, has become a lightning rod for criticism. Earlier this year Russell Street Deli, a long-time anchor of the neighborhood, said it would close in September because of a dispute with Nelson over a $50,000 floor repair. The strip at 2465 Russell St. also houses Supino Pizzeria, Zeff's Coney Island and three vacated storefronts, including the former Mootown Ice Cream & Dessert Shoppe, whose owner decided to close. She said Nelson let her out of her lease.

Nelson previously has said he's rejected offers from national restaurant chains.

"People out there are saying I want to demolish everything and build strip malls," Nelson told The Detroit News in May. "I want to build on Eastern Market and support what's here."

Detroit City Councilman James Tate requested this summer that the Historic Designation Advisory Board put in place an interim historic designation for Eastern Market for one year and conduct a study on the issue. The request was reduced to only a study after the business community reached out to the city administration and said an interim historic designation is premature and restrictive.

Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Partnership, the nonprofit that manages the market, said he hoped for a regulatory framework that keeps its character and supports projects.

An area with a local historic designation would be subject to Detroit Historic District Commission approval on modifications such as exterior paint color changes, sign installation and masonry reconstruction. Historic district designation does not regulate interior design or building use, said Janese Chapman, director of the Historic Designation Advisory Board. Property owners seeking to demolish a structure within a local historic district would have to get permission from the Detroit Historic District Commission. 

The Historic Designation Advisory Board advises City Council on historic preservation issues including proposals for local historic districts. The Historic District Commission regulates the districts. 

Eric Kehoe, board president of Preservation Detroit, a nonprofit that advocates for preservation of historic places in the city, said Eastern Market is more than just a collection of old brick buildings.

"It's about diversity, food production, entrepreneurship and a shared culture," he said. "The thrust behind creating a local historic district in Eastern Market is really about protecting the soul of the market rather than just the buildings. Certainly there are structures in the market that are historically significant, but we need to think creatively about what else can be done regarding zoning and development to allow for reinvestment while preserving the things that make the market a special place."

A farmer displays his potatoes and cabbages at Eastern Market in the early 20th century.

Reached Thursday about the prospect of a local historic designation, developer Nelson issued a statement.

"Of course, Eastern Market is an historic district," he said. "It’s a national treasure! That’s why we are committed to preserving and renewing Eastern Market as the Midwest’s premier food-and-arts hub. We embrace this historic district process and value Dan Carmody’s leadership. None of this changes the fact that the building at 2701 Russell is structurally unsound, unsafe, and will eventually need to be replaced with a project that respects the history and architectural integrity of Eastern Market. That won’t happen anytime soon and will involve immense community input.”

Amy Swift owns Building Hugger, a building restoration service on Chene Street in the market. She favors a local historic district designation because local jurisdiction allows the community to be more involved in changes to properties.

"I’m just very pro-local historic districts because I feel as if it incites a type of planning review process for properties, especially in areas that have been deemed important for the larger and broader community of Detroit," she said.  "There is more of a community census about what happens to these structures — what the future of this place and this neighborhood really is." 

Joe Renkiewicz is co-owner of Henry the Hatter, a 126-year-old hat retailer that relocated to Eastern Market nearly two years ago after losing its downtown lease. Renkiewicz said the Eastern Market Partnership wants to keep the food processing, fresh foods and meats the mainstay of the district.

“They don’t want it to come into strip mall-looking and high-rise with apartments and upscale retail,” he said. “That’s not what they’re looking for in the district. If you keep it as a historic destination, that could prevent that.”

Colors of the rainbow catch the attention of passersby at the Rickert Orchard stand at Eastern Market.

Emmet Barrata's business is one of food-processing mainstays of the market. The owner of Fairway Packing meat-packing company says a local historic designation would be too restrictive for food businesses. He’s been in business since 1988 and his grandfather started a meat-processing company in Eastern Market in 1955.

Barrata said he has to be able to adapt to keep up with changing technology.

“We have to expand our businesses at free will,” he said. “To my understanding, if you’re part of an historic district there’s a lot of complicated steps that goes through to changing anything that’s in place in your building and on your property within that district… I’d have to take a good hard look at all the details.”

The public will have the opportunity to be heard during a Historic Designation Advisory Board hearing at Eastern Market some time this fall. Chapman, director of that board, said a draft final report will ultimately go to City Council for possible approval after its own public hearing.

One potential fallout of a local historic district designation could be the market’s popular Murals in the Market festival in which artist create huge, colorful works of art on exterior walls.

“We don’t know sometimes the color scheme for a mural sometimes until an artist completes the work,” said Carmody, the Eastern Market Partnership president. “Don’t know if the mural festival could be excluded. Perhaps it can be. Those are the things that need to be studied. Certainly, it’s something that needs to be talked about.”

The historic-designation study comes at a time when the city and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. are working on a strategic framework started in early 2018 for the area. The Greater Eastern Market Framework Plan spells out short- and long-term goals and will include proposed zoning ordinance revisions and zoning changes. That study is expected to be complete by the end of the year.

Arthur Jemison, the city’s chief of services and infrastructure, said that while some want change in Eastern Market, others want certain aspects preserved.

“This is obviously one of the special places in our city," he said, "and making sure that the historic elements of it are maintained are really important, having a study of it seems important."


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN