A mile wide and three miles long, the Midtown Detroit neighborhood is probably the most unique destination in the city – home to many historical districts featuring beautifully preserved architecture; a large concentration of cultural, educational, and medical institutions; and dozens of restaurants, theatres, galleries, museums, and small businesses. It wasn’t always so.
The organization named for the neighborhood – Midtown Detroit, Inc. – has been hustling to both preserve and transform the historic neighborhood into a bustling and affordable area for more than 40 years. Since 2000, the organization has raised over $80 million for a variety of initiatives, including the restoration and conversion of six historic homes into a boutique hotel; the development of the Midtown Loop – a greenway trail; the Woodward Avenue Streetscape Enhancement project; the creation of the Sugar Hill Arts District; the construction of two community gardens; and the renovation of more than 40 commercial facades throughout the district. MDI has also facilitated funding for more than 40 residential developments resulting in more than 1,000 new units of housing and has provided technical assistance and financing to at least 30 local businesses.
Sue Mosey has been at the helm of it all for more than 30 years, joining Midtown Detroit (formerly the University Cultural Center Association) in 1987 and taking over as executive director in 1990. Sue has worked on residential and commercial revitalization efforts in southwest Detroit since the 1970s, officially earning her unofficial nickname as the “Mayor of Midtown.” She spends her days continuously encouraging developers, small business owners, institutions, and funders to rally around the neighborhood and participate in its development. She spent a few minutes talking with IFF about Midtown’s past, present, and future:
- Update us on your redevelopment efforts in Midtown Detroit.
A lot of our work centers around preservation, which we started doing because there was so much vacancy here in the early ‘90s. And we’ve always believed that housing has to be a big piece of the work that the organization does because it generates a real value for these districts. However, we have a very diverse portfolio of projects – both real estate and programmatic work, both housing and commercial developments of all sizes.
We do a lot of mixed-use, mixed-income development. We’ve done a number of 30,000-square-foot buildings, and we are currently constructing 15 small single-family homes that are net-zero energy houses. We’ve constructed and repositioned some office buildings. We run a small boutique hotel that we’ve operated for 16 years.
We also run very large programs that encourage people to move here – we ran a very large program called Live Midtown that was capitalized with $10 million to encourage employees of all the different anchor institutions to move to the neighborhood and the district, and that was hugely successful with thousands of people moving here. That ended a number of years ago, but our occupancy rate has held at 98 percent, so that’s really been a good stimulant. And then we started a new program called Stay Midtown, which is designed to help people with lower incomes to access rent subsidy so they can stay in their units or relocate to a better-quality unit in the neighborhood.
Then we do a lot of work with small businesses. We’ve had literally hundreds of businesses that have opened up since 2013 – a really nice mix including small start-ups as well as some regionals and nationals. We believe we need all three to be operating here to fill out the district. It’s a very large geography – a mile wide and three miles long – so it’s a very big area of the center city of Detroit. All the different parts are in different stages of stabilization or development. Some are still very early stage, and some that are pretty much filled out over last 10-20 years.
A couple of things we’re currently working on – First, we’re now working to open up a brewing school with both an artisanal track and a college track through the chemistry department at Eastern Michigan University. Our goal is that 50 percent of those seats will be available for women and minorities. We’re raising subsidy dollars for scholarships to get people trained and into brewing jobs or other jobs in hospitality. These are the things that are coming into our District – a lot of hotels, a lot of brew pubs – so we want to take advantage of that and make sure people have a pathway for employment in those sections.
We are also redeveloping a set of storefront spaces in New Center along Woodward Avenue with financing from IFF. We have seven new independent businesses that will be opening in 2018. These include a new culinary program, a home goods store, an expanded eatery, boutiques, and other small shops. Three of these businesses are minority owned. Everyone is committed to a local hiring strategy. We are also selling one of our storefronts to a beloved Midtown-based salon, a minority woman who has always wanted to own her own space. This gives her a chance to benefit from the appreciated values we are all building in that part of the corridor.
- Midtown Detroit owns a lot of properties that it influences directly. When other developers come into the neighborhood, how do you work with them to align efforts?
We’re not going to influence all developers, but we certainly influence a lot of folks in terms of curating spaces. We could turn around and sell any of our properties, but part of the reason why we’re controlling some real estate portfolios is to create a balance of businesses in the neighborhood. We’re making sure we have some more established brands to attract people because otherwise the smaller businesses don’t do well, but we’re making sure we carve out some of these spaces for local people and that we price them at a fair price so they can be successful.
- What’s your personal philosophy on how to balance redevelopment efforts so that there’s both local businesses as well as chain stores – and so that revitalization doesn’t lead to gentrification?
It’s a really complicated landscape. We’re working with local residents to try to create goals and provide opportunities, while also bringing standard amenities into the neighborhood. We’re running a lot of side-by-side programs for housing, retail, and jobs:
- We want rents to rise so we can pay off our loans, but at the same time we want to ensure that lower-income people can stay in their units – that’s why we have the rent subsidy program.
- We want a lot of regional and national tenants to come in, but we also want to make sure we have below-market start-up spaces for local businesses – that’s why we have four different pop-up spaces that people can rent for a year, and those are targeted at women- and minority-owned companies.
- We want jobs to come in, but we also want to make sure a lot of those jobs are going to local residents – that’s why we work with new companies to have very intentional local hiring programs, and our goal is to get close to 60 percent of the workforce being Detroit residents.
We find most people really do want to achieve the same goals as we do, they just don’t necessarily have an easy pathway to do it, so we are creating those pathways for people.
- What role do you think CDFIs play in helping solve these challenges?
A critical role. Obviously a lot of the CDFIs are providing financing to us for a lot of real estate. For instance, we have CDFI financing in a building we constructed for nonprofit and social impact tenants. We also just developed a 30,000-square-foot building for the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, which has not only their headquarters there but also a large accelerator space for nonprofits on the ground floor. We’re also renovating a 120,000-square-foot historic high school with Invest Detroit for a community hub that will have all kinds of job training, local arts opportunities, maker spaces, and everything in between.
- Of all the many projects you’ve been a part of over the years, are there any that stick out in your mind as particularly special?
There’s a couple. We have a small little boutique hotel called The Inn on Ferry Street. We took a whole block of historic, Victorian mansions and created a hotel. It was definitely a passion project. The purpose was to maintain a really intact, really important set of historic properties and to provide quality overnight fair-priced guest rooms for everybody in the neighborhood. That’s one that we’re really proud of and that we’ve been operating in the neighborhood for 16 years.
We have a lot of other projects that are neighborhood amenities. We built a beautiful park up in New Center called New Center Park. We offer free programming for the neighborhood all summer. That’s an important part of what we offer to the neighborhood.
- Is this the kind of work that will ever feel finished?
Oh no, we’re maybe 50 percent done in terms of neighborhood redevelopment here. There’s been a ton of work done, but there’s a ton of work left to do. The market right now is quite robust, both for investments and for small business development. It’s definitely a stronger market, but there’s tons and tons of additional work to be done to be competitive with other similar districts.
- How do you feel about being called the “Mayor of Midtown”?
The reality of the situation is that I’ve been here for so long – 30 years – so a lot of people have relationships with us and a lot of people come to us when they need assistance. Pretty much everybody who wants to do anything in the neighborhood gets sent here. But that nickname really come about in prior years when we didn’t have as effective a mayor as we have today. We have a very forward-thinking, engaged city government these days, so my role now is really to work directly with them on all of our efforts to accomplish our shared goals.