In a city once derided as the place where the last person to leave needed to turn out the lights, the skyline is shining brightly. Sure, the pressure of Super Bowl XL gave Detroit a critical push. But often lost amid the cranes and construction crews, headline-making rehab projects and gleaming new buildings are metro Detroiters who stepped up. Some risked money; others staked their reputations. Yet all jumped in where many feared to tread – and they did much of the heavy lifting that is transforming Detroit. Certainly, there are countless people who deserve credit, but this month we honor 13 who made the biggest impact as 2006 Detroiters of the Year.
Text by: R.J. King
GEORGE JACKSON JR.
Plenty of people can take credit for the bars, restaurants, lofts and offices that have opened in downtown Detroit. But only George W. Jackson Jr. has had a hand in every deal done in the last four years. He’s also the man who negotiated a buyout of three cement silos along the Detroit River, completed a complicated financial package to renovate the vacant Book-Cadillac Hotel, offered more than 100 grants to repair dilapidated buildings and spearheaded major streetscape improvements along Woodward, Washington Boulevard and Broadway.
As president and CEO of DETROIT ECONOMIC GROWTH CORP., a quasi-public development agency, Jackson is the city’s go-to guy for economic progress. For all the accolades bestowed on Detroit leading up to Super Bowl XL at Ford Field last February, few people knew Jackson was instrumental in converting downtown from an island of inhospitality into a burgeoning urban district worthy of hosting the NFL’s championship game. “George Jackson is the best at what he does, period,” says Roger Penske, chairman of the Detroit Super Bowl XL Host Committee and a titan in automotive, transportation and racing circles. “If I needed something done, I called George.”
Jackson, a single parent (think My Three Sons) and a colorful public speaker who bestows praise on his 35-member staff at every turn, says he doesn’t have time for grand plans or lofty visions. “I’ve heard a lot of talk, dreams and aspirations for downtown Detroit, but talk is cheap,” he asserts. “I’m just looking to do a deal.” Mindful that low interest rates and favorable financing plans won’t last forever, Jackson has little patience for developers who seek added leeway for a project. “I raised three boys,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’ve heard every excuse in the world.”
Yet for all the projects Jackson and his staff have helped finance, plan and implement, from a multimillion- dollar housing project slated for the long-vacant Uniroyal site near Belle Isle to the formation of industrial parks employing more than 1,000 workers, he acknowledges much more needs to be done. “We have the Book-Cadillac Hotel finally moving forward, but we still have to deal with Tiger Stadium, empty buildings like the David Broderick Tower and David Whitney Building, as well as the west riverfront,” Jackson says. “I have plenty to work on.”
Following a 26-year career at Detroit Edison – he was hired as a personnel analyst and left as director of marketing and economic development – Jackson admits he harbors personal reasons in leading the urban resurgence. “My boys are moving out of the house, and I want a great loft on the riverfront,” Jackson says with a laugh. “That way, I can get to work a lot quicker.”
The man behind the remarkable reincarnation of the historic IODENT BUILDING behind the Fox Theatre never intended to be a developer. In fact, Sean Harrington, 38, skipped college, opting instead for a six-year odyssey that took him around the world, including an Atlantic Ocean crossing in an 82-foot sailboat.
But home was always Detroit, and when Harrington returned, he went looking for another adventure. “I came back to Detroit in 1992 to see what was going on and to earn some money,” he recalls. He opened a deli next door to a long-closed steakhouse that would become the Town Pump Tavern. “I planned to run [the deli] for a little time and then sail around the world,” he says. But then the deli business flourished and his interest in the old restaurant grew. “I kept poking my head into the Town Pump space and spent a lot of time trying to recruit” someone to develop it. “Then it dawned on me to do it myself.”
Opened in 1996, the Town Pump Tavern, with its cherry-panel walls, a tin ceiling and a modest library, was an immediate hit. And it wasn’t long before Harrington was gazing across the street at the abandoned Iodent Building, once a toothpaste factory. While he bought the structure in 1997, it took years to assemble plans, financing and clear hurdles with the city to transform it. Finally, last year, after an overhaul that exceeded $2 million, Harrington realized his dream, unveiling a three-story Art Deco martini bar called Centaur, recently crowned by Condé Nast Traveler as one of the world’s 25 best new nightspots.
In the building, Centaur will soon be joined by 16 luxury loft apartments, with Harrington and his wife, Leslie, making their home on the top floor. Once moved in, they’ll look out on, thanks to Harrington, what’s becoming a booming corner of the central business district. “I don’t feel like such a blade of grass anymore,” he says. “Obviously, other people believe and are investing in the city’s resurgence.”
Leading a major redevelopment of the Foxtown entertainment district, Atanas Ilitch has several novel ideas to draw more residents, office workers and merchants into downtown Detroit. For example, imagine buying a loft condominium overlooking Grand Circus Park and receiving season tickets from the Detroit Tigers. “I see the potential for more lofts, cool offices, green parks and great restaurants,” says the president of OLYMPIA DEVELOPMENT.
After spearheading the design and construction of Comerica Park, Ilitch opened Soup Can Music Co. in Detroit, which has produced award-winning hits for Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker and R. Kelly, to name a few. Now he’s looking to produce a few hits in the development arena. For starters, there’s the vacant Detroit Life Building behind the Fox Theatre. Next year, the 10-story structure will be filled with employees from Little Caesar Enterprises Inc., the pizza chain his parents, Michael and Marian Ilitch, built up from a single store that opened in Garden City in 1959. Rapid growth has left little room in the Fox for new Little Caesar employees, he says.
Nearby at Grand Circus Park, Ilitch is looking at a proposal to save the historic facade of the Fine Arts Building. The remaining structure will be torn down and replaced with housing and ground-floor shops and eateries. “In the music industry, I learned to listen to a lot of voices, so I’m taking the same approach with development,” he says. Other structures like the United Artists Building and Theatre are being packaged with surrounding city-owned land for a major office complex. “We own a lot of land and buildings now, and my job is to redevelop them into new uses,” he says. “Hopefully, we can draw companies into Detroit that will want their employees to live here. … My overall goal is to help make downtown into an urban village where people can live, work, play and raise their families.”
Dwight Belyue is no stranger to real-estate development, having managed $250 million in construction contracts for General Motors after graduating from Michigan State University in 1982. Now the Inkster native, who started his own development firm in Detroit seven years ago, is planning a $196-million loft community in the shadow of the automaker’s world headquarters at the Renaissance Center. “I always wanted to be my own developer, but being down the river from GM is something else,” he says.
A tough patch of the city for more than three decades, the east riverfront is in need of developers, and Belyue is leading the way with one of the largest residential projects ever attempted along the water. His Belmar Development Group is slated to start construction later this year on 480 units, to be called @WATER LOFTS. It will join a number of housing developments along the river, which was once clogged with giant cement silos, dozens of industrial buildings and numerous service shops that sprang up more than a century ago to accommodate Detroit’s booming automotive industry. Today, city planners, armed with a host of environmental and building subsidies, are encouraging developers to invest. Belyue’s project, to be located along Atwater Street west of Stroh River Place, is one of many the developer has tackled over the last 24 years. In addition to managing plant changes for GM as well as housing and commercial projects for a development company operated by casino owner Don Barden, Belyue helped convert older structures like the Carola Building in Detroit’s Brush Park into loft condominiums and commercial space.
And this year, while his new development is rising on the riverfront, he’s also working to save the city’s history. Belyue recently started a loft conversion of the former CRYSTAL BALLROOM in Brush Park. Also, he bought the former FEDERAL RESERVE BANK in downtown Detroit, which he hopes to lease out as office space or convert to condominiums. “I like the idea of saving things, and redevelopment in Detroit is an interesting process,” he says. “You learn a lot about the city’s history.”
Dale Watchowski hopes people do a double take at the sight of Detroit’s newest office building, a green-glass tower on Campus Martius. “We wanted the building to be an icon,” says the president and CEO of Redico, the Southfield real-estate firm that developed the 10-story structure known as ONE KENNEDY SQUARE. It was designed, he explains, to be a bright contrast to downtown’s stone facades. Or, as architect Ken Neumann says, “an emerald in a masonry forest.”
Eager to participate in downtown Detroit’s revival, Watchowski won a city bid to develop what would be the city’s second major new office structure in 15 years, and a key project to attract retailers. Also intriguing to Watchowski was the location, formerly a public gathering spot dedicated to President John F. Kennedy and before that, the home of Detroit City Hall. “The site has its share of history, but we wanted to focus on the future and Campus Martius Park,” Watchowski says.
As part of what he calls the most complicated preparation for any project in his career, Watchowski refined a plan to “float” rectangular floors above a triangle-shaped base. “Because we needed to mate the structural columns of the building to an underground parking garage, we needed to be creative,” he explains. Rectangular floors are favored by most businesses today because they allow space planners to maximize work areas. But there is another benefit. The building design provides for covered outdoor seating for up to three main-floor eateries. “We are looking for at least one white-linen-cloth restaurant,” Watchowski says. “We believe a covered plaza looking into Campus Martius Park is quite exciting.”
The restaurants, scheduled to open next year, will service the financial district as well as visitors to the park. One Kennedy Square, which cost $54 million to develop and build, is slated to hold more than 1,000 office workers. Ernst & Young, a large accounting firm, and technical workers affiliated with automotive supplier Visteon Corp., have signed leases for most of the space in the 250,000-square-foot structure. “I can’t wait for the restaurants to open,” Watchowski says. “The activity will really enliven what’s happening at Campus Martius Park.”
In his last season with the Detroit Lions, Robert Porcher was getting rave reviews for a swanky jazz supper club he had just opened in the Renaissance Center with two partners. “I was on the field for an exhibition game at Ford Field [in 2004], and all these guys from the Baltimore Ravens were at the restaurant the night before,” Porcher recalls, referring to Seldom Blues. “They were coming up between plays saying how much they loved the place.” A defensive end for 12 years, Porcher hopes the accolades will be repeated for his most ambitious project yet.
In the fall, Porcher and a handful of investors are scheduled to reopen the historic VINTON BUILDING, a slim, decorative structure at Woodward and Congress that has sat empty for more than a decade. “I remember touring the building in early 2004 and thought it had potential, but it needed a lot of work,” Porcher says. Before opening Seldom Blues with restaurateur Frank Taylor and musician Alexander Zonjic, Porcher says he gained an appreciation for working with carpenters, plumbers and electricians. “It’s like playing professional football; everything has to be orchestrated.”
But opening restaurants – Porcher and Taylor coown Detroit’s Breakfast House & Grill @ Merchants Row and Grand City Grille in the Fisher Building – was easier than tackling a 12-story renovation project. “It was the first time I learned how to channel utility lines between floors,” Porcher says. “It was also the first time I’ve done loft and office conversions.” But his foray into the restaurant business will come in handy. A wine bar is planned on the first floor.
Built in 1916 and designed by renowned Detroit architect Albert Kahn, the Vinton Building was commissioned by contractor Robert K. Vinton. In subsequent years, the structure served as a financial center as well as the administrative headquarters of the Detroit Bar Association.
After wining a city bid for the building in 2004, Porcher and his investment team took responsibility for specific floors. In addition to the wine bar, Porcher is renovating the second floor into offices for Candor Marketing Group in Troy, a company he helped form in 2003.
On the third and eighth floors, side-by-side residential lofts will be built, including a unit for Porcher. “It will be a true loft with exposed ceiling and walls,” he says. The remaining upper floors are earmarked for other residences. “The great thing about downtown is that every block is being improved in one way or another,” Porcher says. “That provides a lot of confidence to investors, businesses and people looking to live down here.”
DAVID & ANDY FARBMAN
David and Andy Farbman have seen their share of renovation projects as owners of the Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings. But it wasn’t until they took on the redevelopment of three former fashion outlets in downtown Detroit that they gained an appreciation for creating residential lofts in historic buildings. “It was a learning process, to be sure,” says David, co-president with his brother of Farbman Group, a full-service real-estate firm in Southfield.
Getting a crash course in what Andy calls “renovation solutions,” the brothers have built up a healthy appetite over the last five years for historic restoration projects. In addition to converting the D.J. HEALY BUILDING, along with two neighboring structures on Woodward Avenue north of Campus Martius Park into 61 lofts and retail space, the pair also converted two historic structures into condominiums at Stroh River Place. “We’ve become pretty adept at researching old blueprints and building plans,” Andy says.
Today, the $10.5-million Healy conversion, renamed LOFTS @ WOODWARD CENTER, is 95 percent occupied. “One interesting thing is that no two apartments are the same,” Andy says. “It’s just the way the buildings are laid out. We thought that might be a concern, but the residents loved it because they had something no one else had.” Still, some uniformity was called for. While the Farbmans preferred to replace the Healy’s glazed terra-cotta facade with a similar material, they found the clay variety was twice as expensive as more modern polymer offerings. The new material was more durable as well. Other challenges emerged when crews started opening up the walls between the three buildings. “You can do all the inspections you want before you sign a purchase agreement, but until you start peeling back the old walls, you really don’t know what’s there,” David says. “But at the end of the day, if you offer a quality home in a unique setting, you’re going to draw residents, no question.”
ROBERT & DAVID SCHOSTAK
When Robert and David Schostak vowed to restore six vacant and derelict structures along the lower Woodward corridor in downtown Detroit, preservationists wondered if the architectural treasures would be marred or destroyed, while development specialists questioned the pair’s resolve and sanity. After all, the city’s once-bustling retail strip had largely been abandoned following the 1967 riots and an already steady migration of residents to the suburbs.
“We heard from a lot of people who encouraged us to tread lightly and be prepared for surprises,” says Robert, co-president with his sibling of Schostak Brothers & Co., a commercial real-estate firm in Southfield, best known locally for developing Laurel Park Place mall. The brothers admit they had zero experience restoring historic buildings. “We received a crash course in Redevelopment 101,” David says.
Taking on downtown Detroit’s largest residential loft redevelopment to date, the Schostaks came across their share of daunting challenges. For example, the restoration required demolishing three adjacent buildings. Two came down to make way for a parking deck with vehicle lifts – a city first. After the template was set, the brothers and their architects set about designing 157 separate apartments. “We also made a decision to install granite countertops and upgraded appliances because we’re selling the apartments as condominiums [in four years],” Robert says. Other downtown developers have chosen to delay such expenses.
After opening in stages last fall, THE LOFTS OF MERCHANTS ROW is nearly fully leased. The redevelopment project is named after the burgeoning department stores that occupied the structures starting in 1886, including S.S. Kresge, Frank & Seder and F.W. Woolworth. Some units span two floors and are connected by a spiral staircase, while a handful of penthouse units offer roof decks and views of Comerica Park. In a bid to re-create past merchant activity, several ground-floor spaces have been leased. The businesses include Detroit’s Breakfast House & Grill, Mark England DeMode, Avis Rent a Car and Woodhouse Day Spa.
Brush Park, a historic district immediately north of downtown Detroit, was a hodgepodge of mostly vacant Victorian-style homes when Bernie Glieberman arrived on the scene in 1992. The developer of single-family homes had been scouting the neighborhood for several months in hopes of pursuing a major redevelopment that included the restoration of several mansions along with the addition of 700 condominiums. But even the full support of city hall and surrounding residents couldn’t remove the challenge of redeveloping a residential enclave that began taking shape in the 1870s.
“Detroit was unique in that its building cycle went through the 1960s and then stopped,” says Glieberman, president of CROSSWINDS COMMUNITIES Inc. in Novi. “Most of the land had been built on, and the building department stopped receiving residential permit requests.” In fact, Glieberman’s proposal took several years to design, plan and win approvals. During that time, the city successfully encouraged several builders, including Glieberman, to construct single-family homes near Jefferson and Conner. But that development, called Victoria Park, was cleared of older building stock. “We had our share of challenges there, but nothing like Brush Park,” Glieberman recalls.
Because Brush Park was a historic district, the redevelopment effort came with hurdles. For starters, an archaeological dig was required by the federal government to determine if the land held any Native American artifacts. The tests were negative. In turn, wooden water pipes needed to be replaced, while a planned fire station was relocated. “People don’t mind hearing a train go by, but every time a fire truck rolls out with its sirens blaring, people wonder if their house is burning,” Glieberman says. The developer helped persuade the city to pursue a different strategy.
Today, more than 230 condos have been built at Woodward Place at Brush Park. Several historic residences have been renovated as well. The project, which will take another fours years to complete, has drawn city residents. But Glieberman says close to half of the condos have been sold to people living outside the city. “The good thing about Detroit is that it saved its culture,” he says. “The Detroit Opera House and Orchestra Hall are world-class facilities, and Comerica Park and Ford Field are A-Number 1. That makes it a lot easier to draw new residents.”
When Gary Torgow, president of the Sterling Group, bought the GUARDIAN BUILDING two years ago, the Art Deco tower came with only a handful of tenants and, thanks to a sputtering regional economy, little demand for space. “I remember walking all of the floors and wondering how we were going to fill them,” he says, noting that the former home of Michigan Consolidated Gas was only 6-percent full when he took it over. Still, Torgow saw potential and forged ahead. “We rolled our sleeves up and assembled a team to come up with fresh idea,” he says. “The best weapon I had was history. … There is simply no other building like the Guardian.”
Built in 1929 for the Union Trust Co., a major supplier of home mortgages and small-business loans, the Guardian was designed as both a symbol of economic power and a haven for working families. Union Trust management hired famed architect Wirt C. Rowland of Smith, Hinchman & Grylls (the firm, since renamed SmithGroup, occupies several floors in the 40-story structure) to design a temple of finance that would stand out. The Roaring ’20s created unprecedented wealth for numerous executives and blue-collar workers who toiled in the city. To gain their trust and convey a measure of stability, Rowland created numerous symbols both inside and outside the building.
Sheathed in orange and tan brickwork, Rowland adorned the tower’s main entrance off Griswold with two Native American guardians. Inside, an extensive array of Pewabic tiles, marble floors, decorative metal work and a massive Tiffany clock complement a stunning barrel-vaulted bank lobby. “One of the best ideas we had was to convert the bank lobby into a small retail mall,” Torgow says. “That created excitement for our tenants and brought people in.”
The developer also offered reasonable rents, hired a doorman and refurbished the original boardroom for events. In turn, the 32nd floor was converted into a banquet and conference center. Even the elevators were spruced up with TVs. “We believe the improvements were well received,” says Torgow, who also owns the nearby 333 W. FORT BUILDING and is codeveloper of two residential projects in Detroit – THE LOFTS OF MERCHANTS ROW and THE ELLINGTON. “Our occupancy is at 50 percent, and we’re in discussions with several more tenants.”
For 20 years, Tony Ferlito has made his living constructing office buildings and retail outlets in the suburbs. But it wasn’t until he resurrected one of Detroit’s most endangered skyscrapers that he made a name for himself. “No one ever heard of me until we renovated the Kales,” says Ferlito, who, along with several partners, invested more than $16 million into restoring the Albert Kahn-designed building,
Built in 1914, the KALES BUILDING has become a rallying symbol among preservationists eager to show that almost any structure can be restored. Best known as the corporate home of S.S. Kresge Co., the Kales served a large number of doctors and dentists in its early years. “The building was designed before artificial light was perfected, so it had lots of windows that were favored by medical personnel,” says Ferlito, president of Ferlito Construction in Roseville. “That fact alone extended the life of the building for several decades.”
The steady migration of businesses to the suburbs eventually caught up with the 18-story Kales, and it was abandoned in 1986. The white-brick building languished for years and appeared destined for the wrecking ball in the mid-1990s, when early plans for a new baseball stadium called for knocking it down. But when the ballpark was eventually built a few blocks away, the Kales reverted to its previous state in a growing “skyscraper graveyard.” Ferlito and partner W. Robert Bates, of Mansur Real Estate Services in Indianapolis, assembled the funds to restore and convert the Kales into a 119-unit residential tower, complemented by retail spaces. Today, the structure is nearly full, occupied by a mix of young professionals, students, empty nesters and urban trippers – people who use a Detroit address to entertain after events.
“I had been trying to do a project in Detroit for seven years, and it’s funny I wound up with one of the toughest,” Ferlito says, noting that his latest projects aren’t as problematic. For instance, Ferlito recently sold and renovated the WOMEN’S EXCHANGE BUILDING near Comerica Park into Cheli’s Chili Bar. “We’re looking to do other projects in Detroit,” he says. “We have all the experience you could ever want.”