Detroit builds homes to be home Revival: Replacing stadiums and erecting casinos may lure suburbanites downtown, but to get them to move in, the city knows it must offer decent places to live.

July 19, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT -- Like many houses in the once-grand Brush Park neighborhood, the one Ron Elliott bought last fall is a tired, rubble-strewn shell.

But come back next year, the homeowner said on a recent afternoon as he built a fence around a back yard planted with sunflowers, vegetables and apple trees.

By then, he'll have restored the original oak woodwork on the stairs, added a marble mantel to the fireplace, built and stocked a humidor in the study and constructed a third-story terrace, where he can relax in a hot tub and enjoy the view of his new neighborhood.

Right now, the neighborhood isn't much to look at: Victorian mansions long abandoned to the elements and the scavengers. Weed-choked lots. An occasional liquor store, or as they're rather sadly called here, "party store."

But through the efforts of individual pioneers like Elliott and a major housing developer, Brush Park, once home to city elite like the Hudsons department store fam- ily, is struggling back to life. As the city launches projects to revitalize downtown -- new sports stadiums and riverfront casinos -- housing in faded neighborhoods such as Brush Park has become an important part of the picture.

"Housing is less high-profile in downtown redevelopment, but I personally think it's more vital," said Colin Hubbell, director of urban development for Crosswinds Communities, a company building 400 townhouses in Brush Park. "That's how you build in a 24-hour community."

"What has desperately been missing in the downtown areas is housing," agreed Katherine Clarkson, director of a Detroit historical preservation group that has been working with developers to convert unused commercial buildings into loft housing.

"In order to bring back an area, you need mixed uses. You can have the theaters, the Opera House, the restaurants and nightclubs, the stadia, but you also need to have the bread-and-butter of people who live there. The kind of people who spend money every day, on rent and food, not just the kind of people who spend leisure dollars and then go home."

To a greater extent than other aging cities, the demand for housing in downtown Detroit diminished drastically over the years.

Detroit's trend was to build outward. The auto plants, as they grew ever larger, moved beyond the city limits to where land was cheaper and more plentiful -- and the workers followed.

The devastating race riots of 1967 sent even more Detroiters packing. By the mid-'70s, 550,000 people had left the city. Detroit, which in 1950 was home to more than 1.8 million people, is down to a population of about 990,000.

The exodus created a downward spiral -- businesses left, stores closed, downtown office space couldn't be given away.

Catching up to Baltimore

Slowly, however, Detroit is following other cities in shaking its downtown back to life. "A lot of cities -- Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh -- have had their woes but now are experiencing a new vibrancy," Hubbell said.

"Detroit is the last to catch up, perhaps because it sunk so deeply."

It could take years to recover from those depths, said Kurt Metzger, director of the Michigan Metropolitan Information Center at Wayne State University, which compiles demographic and housing data about the area.

"I'd like to be optimistic -- it's been a long time since we've even seen construction cranes in the city, so all this new activity is welcome," Metzger said. "But people are just now slowly coming around to being willing to even visit the city. You're seeing some new restaurants, and a few stores, but there's still no retail to speak of."

Metzger said the push to revitalize downtown is off to a good, but slow, start. But it's not as simple as throwing new housing up or building entertainment venues.

"There are still things like schools and other city services that have to be resolved," Metzger said.

"Right now, the city can bring in young professionals who work downtown or enjoy the night life. It can bring in older couples who might enjoy the arts but don't have kids who they have to worry about where they'll go to school. These are the kinds of people with the disposable income who can afford the extra tax burden that the city levies on you, and don't mind driving to get services.

"But it's going to take quite a bit more before the city will get a family that lives in the suburbs and is interested in buying a new home and asking themselves, 'Should we stay in the suburbs or go into the city?' "

Stadiums and casinos

The city got a financial and psychological boost when General Motors decided to move its corporate headquarters -- and as many as 6,000 employees -- into the Renaissance Center, the fortress-like office, retail and hotel complex that was built on the downtown riverfront in 1977 in a previous revitalization effort.

But instead of helping, the RenCen siphoned businesses and retail traffic from the rest of downtown, leaving the older buildings more bereft than ever.

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