On the Ground: Downtown Detroit Today

Contributing editor Leah Etling paid a visit to Detroit in August and recorded her observations both through words and photos. View her slideshow and read her commentary below. Interviews with industry members in the market and more photos are part of the Spotlight on Detroit, the market report in the December 2014 issue of Commercial Property Executive.

Downtown Life

Terry Londy flagged me down on a street corner in the heart of downtown. As I snapped a photo of a handmade woodcut emblazoned with “Detroit – Rising from the Ashes,” and started to walk away, a hipster-looking man with cuffed jeans and multiple tattoos stopped me to chat.

Londy is doing his master’s degree at Lawrence Technological University, where he was charged with creating a piece that would “reflect Detroit and where it is going to be in the future.”

“I wanted to tap into the emotion of downtown redevelopment,” he said. Simultaneously working for dPOP!, a progressive Detroit interior design firm that is turning redeveloped and historic buildings into hip work and retail spaces, Londy has his finger on the pulse of the downtown core.

A native Detroiter, he and many locals I talked to say they struggle with Detroit’s bad reputation in the national eye.

“When people talk about your city in a negative way, you take it personally,” said Londy, who hopes to stay in Detroit and teach art after he finishes his degree. He credits much of the turnaround downtown to Dan Gilbert. In fact, his art piece was placed on one of the 52 buildings the Quicken Loans billionaire owns.

Just across the street, Devin Kuziel spends her days in an urban oasis – Lafeyette Gardens, a triangular-shaped garden on ¾ of an acre. Once the site of the crumbling Lafeyette Towers, an abandoned office building that was built in 1923, it was demolished in 2010.

With flourishing raised planter beds and a fenced exterior, the Compuware-funded garden has ½ acre of producing space. Surplus produce is delivered to Freedom House in southwest Detroit. For nearby office workers, it’s a nice spot to have an outdoor meeting or enjoy some sun on a lunch break. Seniors living in high-rise apartments nearby, without any open space to call their own, wander in to say hi to Devin and check on the crop.

Devin sees downtown Detroit’s ongoing changes as a chance to do things better. “You can look (at vacant land) as a really negative thing, or as an opportunity that not a lot of cities have,” said Kuziel cheerfully. The chance to put a producing garden in the middle of skyscrapers was certainly one bright spot.