Motoring on in a depressed city

Detroit might have filed for bankruptcy, but the vision of property developer Tony Goldman – who managed to turn around Miami – is giving the city’s residents a glimmer of hope

MS Guide to Bridging Finance

Although Detroit’s bankruptcy filing had been long anticipated, the news still prompted a flood of formidable questions.  Is there any path left for revitalising the city, where illiteracy rates are heartbreaking and most people lack even electricity? Real estate developer Tony Goldman, who died last year, thought he could help. He visited Detroit in May 2011 to discuss his vision and offered a brief glimpse of hope. 

Goldman had a long history of bringing urban wasteland areas back to life, in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and more recently Miami. He explained in 2011 that he would not throw billions of dollars at renewing Detroit but go “block by block”, using community resources and replacing broken windows and facades in key neighborhoods. He planned to take advantage of the city’s contemporary artistic identity, to make it an avant-garde nexus like Berlin. 

Goldman believed he could bring back “life, energy and excitement” to Detroit, while showcasing its buildings, explains Joe Furst, managing director at Goldman Properties in Wynwood, Miami.  

Wynwood, where Goldman began investing in 2005, had been a warehouse district with a few artists’ studios and galleries. In those days it looked like a typical industrial area, adjacent to a working class Puerto Rican neighborhood to the north, Little Haiti to the west, and streets rife with crime and poverty to the south.

Wynwood’s physical space attracted Goldman, who was impressed by “the grid system, the scale of buildings and the street width. Those elements were potentially pedestrian-friendly, assuming appropriate uses within the buildings,” says Furst. Goldman, embracing an art scene already there, decided to open a museum space and two restaurants. 

The Wynwood Walls project, an outdoor mural museum located on six Goldman properties, currently serves as the town centre. The firm took existing graffiti and wholesalers’ handpainted signs for a collaboration with world-class international street artists.

The revival has spawned significant economic development in a neighborhood that formerly employed one or two people per building. Now restaurants, galleries and a theatre have spurred commercial traffic sales, generated by the interesting content.  In addition, a 9,000sq ft technology incubator adds a different cultural element.

“It is hard to quantify the number of new jobs,” Furst notes, but rental rates have increased from $7-$14 per sq ft in 2005 to $15-$40 today.

Transformations

Nina Johnson, owner of Gallery Diet, remembers the environment in Wynwood when she first opened her gallery there in 2007. “Clients would phone us from their cars because they were too scared to walk from the car to our gallery,” she says. Notwithstanding, the area offered inexpensive warehouse space not far from downtown and not too much red tape in terms of permits and building plans.   

Johnson was also happy to work with her landlord Goldman “as a real partner”, encouraged that he would not raise the rent after a few years on a short-term lease. 

She describes how quality of life has improved dramatically. “When the first restaurant, Joey’s, opened in 2008, we no longer had to drive to the other side of town to get a salad at lunch. It let people spend all afternoon here.”

Johnson insists the changes cannot be attributed to any one component,but to a network of factors working in tandem, including galleries, restaurants and boutiques. “If Goldman had been the only entity, this complex development would have become a boring, homogenised place.”

It is significant that all these establishments remain independently owned and operated, rather than belonging to giant chains. Johnson and her neighbours keep a wary eye on their own success. They hope the new prosperity will not affect the neighborhood’s character, making prices unaffordable and shutting out small businesses.

A model for Detroit

The once magnificent centre of the auto industry has, in fact, some assets that Miami lacks, such as a rich history of philanthropy, an infrastructure of loyal families who have inhabited the city for more than 200 years, a deep sense of hometown pride and many architectural treasures. 

University of Michigan assistant professor of architecture Anya Sirota attended Goldman’s presentation in Detroit in 2011, and says the developer had not seen such potential in an urban scenario since the period when he was discovering Soho in 1976. 

Indeed, even over the past two years, parts of Detroit have experienced some economic revival and gentrification, with
the construction of residential lofts, retail outlets such as Whole Foods and investment from large foundations such as Kresge and Knight.

Small creative ‘nodes’ have become caught up in economic speculation, Sirota reports. Detroit brands and sells itself in the international art market, while places like Manhattan and Pittsburgh no longer command the same cutting-edge cachet. 

In the suburbs lives a vibrant purchasing sector, since the managerial class remains there although production has moved elsewhere. “They drive in from the suburbs to eat pulled pork next to the ruin of a train station,” Sirota says.

Opportunities in Detroit abound. For example, Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and the city’s third largest landowner, spotted real estate bargains and moved 1,700 of his employees to downtown in 2010. But the seemingly intractable dilemma remains of what to do about the dire levels of poverty that plague an enormous swathe of land, where infrastructure has broken down. 

Sirota cannot be truly optimistic overall, although she lays out two contrasting narratives. One is of “failure, lament and ruination”, the other represents an innate American spirit of entrepreneurialism, where anything is possible. “You can buy a house or a business here for a thousand dollars, doing what your great-grandparents did when they got off the boat.”