Detroit District Builds Around Design
Detroit — A few years ago, a motorist in the Milwaukee Junction neighborhood might have driven past 2863 E. Grand Blvd. without taking notice.
The defunct Maurice Fox Ford sales and service center was a boarded-up, graffitied shell of its former self.
Then Detroit-based Method Development stepped in to create what it calls the Detroit Design District. The company purchased the entire block in 2019 with an ambitious redevelopment plan.
“This block was basically a barren wasteland of obsolete buildings enclosed in a fence with barbed wire,” Method Development co-founder Amelia Patt-Zamir said. “But we really felt palpable vibes in the neighborhood of artists being in here … and we really thought that this was the right home for the Detroit Design District. And that was our vision. So that’s what we were hoping to curate.”
After undergoing $12 million in redevelopment, the former auto center and an adjoining building now house 15,000 square feet of occupied retail space and 18 loft apartments.
Method Development’s work isn’t done. It plans a $15 million second phase that includes rehabilitating buildings on the block.
The project is among the latest to emerge in the Milwaukee Junction neighborhood in recent years. Down the street, there’s the Platform’s Chroma building and other business ventures, such as the neighborhood bar Kiesling and Milwaukee Caffé.
It all sits near other upcoming projects, such as the Platform’s redevelopment of the Studebaker building into the Piquette Flats, expected to meet the demand for workforce housing. In the distance, one can see the former Fisher Body Plant that’s slated to become a mixed-use development.
The businesses join others with long tenures in the neighborhood, including Tangent Gallery on Milwaukee and Parks Old Style Bar-B-Q on Beaubien.
“We’re trying to curate a vibe and keep the vibe here that was kind of already in the neighborhood,” Patt-Zamir said. “We want to attract businesses that are viable, but businesses that are also going to help with the placemaking experience.”
A district in progress
Method Development isn’t new to development work in the city of Detroit. Since 2014, the real estate investment and development company has undertaken work in other neighborhoods, including a loft conversion in Eastern Market and an eight-unit apartment in a historic home in Brush Park.
The Detroit Design District sits along East Grand Boulevard, between St. Antoine and Oakland. Along East Grand, developers have taken advantage of the properties’ high ceilings and solid structure, creating a space fit for its tenants, which include comic bookstore Vault of Midnight, art gallery I.M. Weiss Gallery, artist collective Bulk Space, design and production studio Midwest Common and vintage fashion store Boro.
Two new tenants expected to move in by the end of the year are Los Angeles streetwear company From The Field and visual and culinary art studio Someday.
An old automobile elevator shaft at the rear entry of the former auto center now features dramatic overhead lighting for those entering from what is now a pedestrian alley.
Among the first tenants to move in was Vault of Midnight in late 2019. Curtis Sullivan, co-owner of the comic book store, said he enjoys the outdoor space for events behind the store, which relocated from Library Street in downtown Detroit.
“We’re always out in the alley with food vendors, local artists, creators, comic book creators,” he said. “We love that there’s an event space and that people can actually get to it, too.”
“We hope that more places come, the area just keeps on coming up, as it were,” he said. “Just better for us as a business, more people living around, more businesses filling up the building that we’re in. Obviously, we want to see that trajectory hopefully continue.”
A second phase for the Detroit Design District around the corner at 6540 St. Antoine St. will modernize the Boyer Campbell building. The 1929 four-story, 60,000-square-foot industrial building was once the headquarters of a leading automotive supply company. Among its notable features are its Albert Kahn-styled columns and an old spiral package shoot that leads to a former assembly floor.
“How can we attract tenants in the creative space and industries?” Patt-Zamir said. “Before COVID, we’re getting a lot of inquiries just from like regular office users who perhaps want to relocate from Southfield. Thathanged, but also, we’re looking to more creatively activate it.”
Method Development co-founder Rakesh “Rocky” Lala said they’ve received inquiries from food and beverage businesses as well as flower shops about occupying spaces on the block.
The company recently hosted an event for the Detroit Month of Design in the Boyer Campbell building, launching a solo exhibition called Ergofeaturing Detroit-based artist Paula Schubatis. The exhibition is open Friday and Saturdays and by appointment through Oct. 17.
Method Development has considered using the upper levels of the Boyer Campbell building as a hub or incubator for student artists or those learning to code, Lala said.
Isabelle Weiss, owner of I.M. Weiss Gallery, said the development of the Detroit Design District was ideal for her move back to the city. Her gallery had previously been in the Fisher Building before moving to Ferndale.
“I think that what I enjoy about this neighborhood is the kind of openness,” she said. “Both spatially, and itreally feels like there are more opportunities here to do different things. This neighborhood isn’t pre-programmed to cater to certain sectors, not that that’s a bad thing. But I think it does allow for more creative businesses to flourish because it’s kind of just open to whatever you have the brain and the brawn to create and
build. It feels like a really good neighborhood for that.”
Weiss said she would like to see a mix of hospitality, retail and professional studios.
“It seems that that’s the direction that things are going in, from a development standpoint, and I really hope that it continues to go that way,” she said.
Make this really unique
The Detroit Design District is within walking distance of Chroma, a co-working and food hall space the Platform opened in 2021. Patt-Zamir said she envisions a pedestrian-friendly alleyway where one could walk between the two blocks.
Around the corner on Milwaukee Avenue, Ashley Davidson, co-founder of Kiesling and Milwaukee Caffé, said she welcomes new development in the city, including the Detroit Design District.
“I love it,” she said. “I think the more, the better. The more people we can bring back into the city. And while preserving our diversity. I think having something for everyone is so important. Having spaces that are good for young people, for singles, for couples, for young families, for older people, just having that kind of rich cultural experience that makes cities valuable and thriving is just, it’s beautiful to see it, so I certainly welcome it.”
Davidson and her business partner opened Kiesling in 2018 and Milwaukee Caffé in 2020. They were drawn to the area because of its residential base and proximity to the former creamery building and the Piquette Plant.
Davidson recalled thinking: “There’s not a lot here serving this community, and I don’t see any pedestrians outside during the day or at night. … Anybody can build a bar. It’s a room with alcohol on the wall and maybe some tables and chairs and barstools. But how do we make this really unique to the neighborhood? And make sure it feels welcoming for everyone who might be here, whether they’re a surgeon at Henry Ford (Hospital) or they’re coming off the line or anywhere in between.”
They proceeded to restore the space, originally a general store operated by Joseph Kiesling, before it became a bar under other names, including Edith’s Hideaway. Next door, they opened Milwaukee Caffé, which offers a welcoming environment with the baristas visible from the street through a cantilever window.
Now, residents fill the apartments surrounding the bar and café, just like the lofts over at the Detroit Design District. And down the street, the 108,000-square-foot Piquette Flats at 411 Piquette is expected to be finished in summer 2024, adding 161 housing units. The redevelopment of the Fisher Body 21 Plant, led by developers Richard Hosey and Greg Jackson, is expected to add 433 apartments when it opens in mid-2026.
At the Detroit Design District, tenant Miriam Pranschke, owner of modern and vintage shop Boro, said she enjoys the neighborhood. She relocated her store to E. Grand Boulevard from Gratiot in Eastern Market in November 2022 after the owners said they wanted to make renovations.
“I really enjoyed that thought that this is a more organic, a slower process, but more meaningful, more intentional over here,” Pranschke said. “Rather than just completely rebuilding and building up a new development, a new building, they’re really renovating the ones in this area that have a lot of character already. So it’s still a little bit of a hidden gem, which is kind of nice and Detroit-ish. I’ve been enjoying that aspect of it.”