The fifth post seems to be a good time to discuss a big hypothetical future for Detroit, so I’m going to write about something I’ve actually spent a bit of time imagining over the past few years. What if Detroit had a bona fide design district?
A design district encompasses many things. It houses design-related businesses, it promotes forward-thinking real estate development, it embraces independent retailers, and it becomes a hub for creative thinkers, whether in the design field, the arts, development, law or anything else. It is different from an artist district in the sense that it would be far more commercial. It is different from a cultural district in the sense that it is not intended to be reliant on non-profit or civic entities as the focal point. The best local analogy I can come up with is Tech Town, north of Wayne State University. Or maybe the Eastern Market area. Those are the same kind of mixed-use vision with a specific mission.
West Fort Street, from the Lodge to the Ambassador Bridge, provides a tantalizingly blank canvas as a central artery for a district like this. There are still quite a few old warehouses and other buildings scattered around the area, providing a link to the area’s industrial past and begging for creative re-use (well, the ones that aren’t currently housing actual businesses). But there are acres of empty space and parking lots perfect for development. And lovely proximity to the riverfront.
In my ideal world, development there would be a mix of big and small scale. There would not be blocks and blocks of townhouses that look identical to one another, nor would there be uninspiring Royal Oak-style loftominiums.
Instead, smaller developers build smaller projects that incorporate good modern design and have unique identities. A small row of modern townhouses, each with a different architect, for example. Or a low-rise apartment building that strives to make a statement.
Bigger developers use this area to create a signature building, maybe bringing in a bigger-name architect. Or they do a warehouse rehab that reflects a different approach to live/work – like apartments with showroom space below them, or offices you can drive your car into, or ... well, it’s not my job to think of every possibility!
There would be a broad array of businesses inhabiting this area. Modestly I propose that a modern design store such as mine might be a nice ground floor anchor tenant. But there should be a variety of retail: housewares at all different prices, florists who “get it” and clothing boutiques for men and women. The emphasis is on creative, independent stores and cool restaurants.
As for the office population, it would be a great area for architecture firms, furniture showrooms, designer ateliers, creative agencies, interior design studios, and any number of businesses that employ and cater to creative people. Maybe one of the automotive companies would set up a design think tank in the area. Products designed in Detroit could be manufactured in the area. Lawyers and professionals who service this clientele would move in. And the people who just want to be around cool stuff would be there.
Ultimately there is a thriving, architecturally interesting, diverse, economically viable district in the city that is nothing like anyplace else in the region.
But of course, attaining even a sliver of this dream relies on the things I’ve talked about this week: imagining a different way of doing business, embracing the influences that make us uniquely Detroit, patronizing and encouraging independent businesses that are willing to push the envelope, and gaining the population that will thrive in this kind of environment.
Can this happen? I don’t know, but I see promising signs. Appreciation for our modern heritage is on the upswing, as is an interest in urban living, and Detroit is burnishing its image as a real city with lots of great things to offer. But I see things that diminish that hope a little bit, like uninspiring new architecture, needlessly empty storefronts and a drive to copy the suburbs in some desperate bid for validation.
Individuals are the only ones who will really drive Detroit in the right direction. I’ve made my choice, and I’m doing my very small part to make this the kind of city I never want to leave. Be sure you do your part too!