Half of the ground floor of the Love Building at 4731 Grand River in Core City is raised four steps higher than street level. Some people might not think twice about it, but for a person who uses a wheelchair, it’s one of the first things that’s noticed.
While the architects at the Oakland, California-based firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, which is redeveloping the 25,000-square-foot property, debated how to make the entire first floor more accessible, it was Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power, who had an idea that no one thought of yet.
“The architects were trying to figure out the specs — you need a foot of ramp for every inch that it goes up. The ramp was taking up half of the first floor,” says Cosma.
“I just asked if we could cut out that whole part of the floor and make it one level.
“Having a person in the room that is obsessed with barriers brings a perspective to the design process and that’s what we and [the Love Building] are trying to do out in the real world. To be able to do that where we are going to be located is very cool.”
Detroit Disability Power is one of several nonprofit organizations that will soon call the Love Building home, a building so-named for the prominent mural of four hands spelling out L-O-V-E on its façade. Allied Media Projects purchased the Core City building in 2018 for $1 million, according to property records, and has assembled a group of nonprofits that will soon create a one-building campus of Detroit social justice efforts, organizations that aim to “dismantle a harmful system.”
“We envisioned a building that’s a hub for social justice organizing and organizations that share a common core of values,” says Jenny Lee, executive director for Allied Media Projects.
Construction began in earnest this September, beginning work to redevelop the 100-year-old building at 4731 Grand River Ave. from a hive of artist studios into the headquarters for Allied Media Projects, Detroit Justice Center, Detroit Disability Power, Detroit Narrative Agency, Detroit Community Technology Project, and Paradise Natural Foods. The project is estimated to cost $10 million.
The nonprofit drew a lot of criticism for the eviction of the previous tenants, displacing artists who had studios at the former incubator and in turn had helped raise the neighborhood’s, and the city’s, profile through public art. The irony is not lost on Lee. The building was in bad shape when they purchased it, she says, and mounting complaints about building infrastructure like the ventilation and electrical systems at least partially led to their emptying the property in order to rebuild it from the inside out. Signing a majority of nonprofits versus artists as tenants allows the property to retain its nonprofit tax-exempt status, too, she adds.
Lee characterizes the experience as a lesson in development. “We went to great lengths to mitigate the harm of the decision to ask the tenants to leave, extending deadlines to move out, helping them find other spaces.” Efforts are underway to work with the artists to showcase their work there, too, she says. The organization is currently working with a former artist tenant to paint a mural on the side of the building.
“We want to keep continuity of the building’s legacy,” says Lee.
Should construction remain on track, the Love Building will reopen in September 2021. While the top three floors will largely remain dedicated to its nonprofit tenants, the first floor will serve as a community space for hosting events, meetings, and other activities for neighborhood groups. There will be a dedicated room for child care and a room for prayer and meditation.
Nezaa Bandele, owner of Paradise Natural Foods, has been working with Allied Media Projects for about 10 years and has been wanting a brick-and-mortar location for her food catering company. She plans to open a dine-in location on the first floor. Bandele specializes in plant-based foods, though she may broaden her offerings for the restaurant. What she definitely will do, she says, is invite other Detroit food makers to sell their products from her space at the Love Building, too. Bandele initially envisioned a deli but she has changed course since COVID-19 and now favors a more collective model.
“We seed social justice work being done in Detroit and keep them going. Most of our clients are nonprofits,” Bandele says.
As part of the redevelopment process, the developers have assembled a neighborhood advisory council to help guide the direction of the project. Meetings were held over the summer and will continue over the next 12 months, allowing neighbors to help shape the priorities of the programming offered, to provide input, and also to let them know what is happening with the project and what opportunities are available.
“A lot of developments show up and impart their visual identity and brand onto the built environment,” Lee says.
“We’re working through the advisory council to build a brand that they have approval of and think will add value to their neighborhood.”
While it is no doubt beneficial for all of the Love Building tenants to be in proximity to other like-minded organizations within the same building, the nonprofit tenants are especially excited to be located in a neighborhood like Core City, to take part in the neighborhood advisory council meetings, and make connections with their new neighbors.
Amanda Alexander, founder and executive director of the Detroit Justice Center, says it’s important to meet people where they are to ensure inclusive development. The Detroit Justice Center will move its headquarters from downtown to the Love Building upon its completion.
“Talking with the residents of Core City about what they want this to be, it’s exciting to hear residents’ wants and desires,” Alexander says.