Crain’s Detroit Business wrote an article about the Vista Partnership’s efforts to engage the community and redevelop vacant buildings in Southwest Detroit.
by Marti Benedetti
January 9, 2016
Crain’s Detroit Business
Southwest Housing Solutions’ Vista Partnership is taking steps to redevelop vacant buildings along a 20-block stretch of Mexicantown as part of a larger redevelopment plan.
The Detroit-based nonprofit’s Vista Partnership seeks to engage local residents, organizations, public-sector partners and businesses to revitalize a southwest Detroit neighborhood with economic opportunity and social equity. It is funded primarily through grants from foundations such as the Skillman Foundation.
The project got off to a slow start as it required creating a strategy and culling community feedback through meetings and a survey, said Dan Pederson, director of Vista Partnership and a former resident of the neighborhood for 20 years. Now that it has accomplished those steps, it can proceed to find developers and occupants for the vacated buildings.
Pederson is approaching owners of vacant buildings to see if they would like assistance in redeveloping the property or if they would like to sell the property to Vista that would, in turn, redevelop it and find tenants beneficial to the neighborhood.
Vista Partnership counted 400,000 square feet of building space in the blocks surrounded by Newark Street (near the empty Michigan Central Station) that curves east to north, with Bagley Avenue to the south and West Grand Boulevard to the west. Vernor Highway goes through the area. The partnership researched and found that 300,000 square feet of the buildings are occupied, which means 25 percent is vacant, Pederson said.
“The goal of the partnership is to get access to these buildings and put them back into service,” he said, adding that the vacant square footage is concentrated in a few buildings such as Service Tire, a shop on West Vernor toward the former train station that has been vacant for years. “The plan is we get those activated in the next two years.”
Southwest Housing Solutions, which oversees the partnership, wants to be the developer, a partner with a developer or find a developer who wants to repurpose the vacant buildings into an appropriate use for the neighborhood.
A challenge has been getting real estate “speculators” who own the properties to sell or redevelop the property themselves.
“People buy and sit on this stuff for four or five years,” said Pederson, adding that the owners of the former YMCA at Clark Park and the Service Tire building would be in that group.
He said 30 percent of the undeveloped land in that area is vacant, but residents surveyed this fall indicated they wanted to see some of it continue as “wide open space” rather than be developed.
Vista’s first project was the purchase of the former St. Anthony Church at West Vernor Highway and 25th Street in 2013. It redeveloped it for fitness, recreational use and corporate meetings and opened it to the public in July. Southwest Housing Solutions has its office there.
The former church hosts two Zumba classes a day, five days a week. It is not unusual to have a Spanish-speaking grandparent, mother and child at the class together, Pederson said.
It provides an exercise venue but also a social outlet for neighborhood residents. When it opened, the goal was to have 4,000 people use it; it drew 7,000 in the first six months, Pederson added.
He said plans also call for the Vernor viaduct, a dark and forbidding underpass on West Vernor Highway behind the former train depot, to be lighted and decorated with new murals.
The Vista Partnership has been somewhat controversial since its start. Neighborhood residents worry it will compromise the affordability of the area and its Hispanic character, which goes back more than 100 years.
Pederson acknowledged that the demographics of the 20 blocks is changing.
“We are seeing an influx of young people from Brooklyn and other places, and I see more people riding bikes than ever before. But part of the attractiveness here is how multicultural we are,” he said.
Recent counts show the neighborhood is 85 percent Hispanic.
“Southwest Detroit has always been an immigrant community, and it will continue to be that kind of area,” he said.
Kathy Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, said most business owners are pleased to see new businesses coming into the area. One of those is The Huron Room, a restaurant and bar featuring Great Lakes fish and Michigan-made beer and wine. It was opened in mid-November by Jacques and Christine Driscoll, who also own the nearby Green Dot Stables and Johnny Noodle King.
Others said southwest Detroit as a whole is seeing more development dollars come its way as property values rise in neighboring Corktown.
Mike Odom, Southwest Detroit Business Association chairman and vice president at Farmington Hills-based marketing firmMarx Layne, said there is “an uptick in demand” for commercial space along West Vernor Highway.
“Kathy (Wendler) and I are talking about a number of vacant properties. The phone is ringing with people who want to buy property. If folks want to invest in the city, this is a good place. We will have the new bridge (Gordie Howe International Bridge) in our backyard.”
He pointed out that the association recently celebrated the $6.4 million West Vernor Streetscape Project, funded by a combination of public and private entities, including theMichigan Department of Transportation, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, The Kresge Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and others. The project, on 2.3 miles of West Vernor Highway, provided new sidewalks, local park improvements, flowers and streetlights.
Southwest Housing is open to adding housing but wants a combination of market-rate and affordable housing so people aren’t priced out of the neighborhood, Pederson said.
Sherri Saad, broker and owner of Re/Max Leading Edge in Detroit, said home prices in southwest Detroit are on the upswing.
Housing that was priced at $10,000 to $15,000 is now $35,000 to $40,000, up about 40 percent from a few years ago.
She stressed that in southwest Detroit, the value of a house depends on its street. Some streets are known for vandalism, gang activity and foreclosures. “Depending on the street, a house can cost from $5,000 to $50,000,” she said.
Pederson added that certain streets’ houses can command $100,000 or more.
Saad, who has been selling houses in southwest Detroit, including Corktown, for 15 years, said in adjoining Corktown there are now no bargains and rarely a foreclosure. “There are bidding wars on houses,” she said.
Houses of 1,000 to 1,500 square feet range from $129,000 to $189,000.
She said Corktown’s prosperity is spilling into the Hubbard Farms neighborhood and may eventually move into Mexicantown, but that community is family-driven and slow to change.
The Vista Partnership was started in 2011 by Dan Loacano of Southwest Housing Solutions in collaboration with theUniversity of Detroit Mercy School of Architecture.
Southwest Housing Solutions was created by Southwest Solutions in 1996 and is the largest multifamily developer in southwest Detroit. Through grants, donations and the fees for the redevelopment services it provides, it works to replace blight and abandonment with attractive residential and commercial buildings.