Opinion

Dreams and Reality on Woodward Avenue

Moment of Zenlea

The annual Woodward Dream Cruise is an orgy of nostalgia. It celebrates not just the automobile but a particular moment in time when the Motor City really was the engine of the world. Detroiters, naturally, yearn for this time more than most. Even young people here speak longingly of the Golden Age.

I’m nostalgic, too. That’s why I’m cruising in a 2015 Dodge Challenger, a Hemi-powered, softly sprung advertisement for the past. But what I want to know is what Woodward Avenue is like today and what the future may hold for the embattled communities that straddle it. So, the 2015 Dodge Challenger and I are driving the entire 27 miles, not just the 5 or so that host the Cruise. I want to see the real Woodward.

From Motor City to Mortgage City

Lower Woodward Avenue, which stretches through downtown Detroit, is no place for a big muscle car. Construction workers are tearing up lanes and installing tracks for light rail, which by 2017 will run 3.3 miles. Other hard hats can be seen preparing an old Kresge Five and Dime store for a new life as a high-end store. Meanwhile, young professionals are pouring out of the nearby office towers and into the crosswalks on their way to get lunch at food trucks and restaurants in the area.

It’s a typical city scene, but one that’s been absent from downtown Detroit for decades. What exists here today is largely a credit to one company. No, not General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler. Quicken Loans.

The nation’s second-largest home mortgage lender, run by billionaire Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, moved from the suburb of Livonia in 2010 to a large office building at the base of Woodward Avenue. Quicken and its affiliated companies have since offered incentives to its employees to move into the city. And, in a demonstration of vertical integration not seen around here since the days of Henry Ford, Gilbert co-founded a real estate company, called Bedrock, to develop places for these people to live, eat, shop, and park. Bedrock’s holdings presently total more than 75 buildings in the downtown area.

Bruce Schwartz, a former executive of one of Quicken’s subsidiaries who now serves as Bedrock’s “Detroit relocation ambassador,” describes the reasoning as part philanthropy—both he and Gilbert grew up in the Detroit area—and part long-term strategy to attract and retain young professionals, who have been leaving Michigan in droves.

“These people are not moving to Chicago to live in the suburbs; they want to live in a city.” Detroit was the city Quicken had at hand, and there happened to be lots for sale on the cheap.

Schwartz, a human spark plug who rocks a derby hat, thick-rimmed glasses, and a large watch, takes us on a whirlwind walking tour of the company’s possessions around Woodward. They include a massive bank built in the late ’50s whose basement vault has been converted into a conference room, a new flavored-ice store, and several retail spaces being readied for new tenants, which Schwartz promises will be high-profile “destination” retail stores.

The area isn’t devoid of automakers. In 2012, Bedrock cut a deal with Chrysler to rent out the top floors of one of its skyscrapers and renamed it the Chrysler House. More recently, Gilbert convinced Ally—formerly GMAC—to rent out another skyscraper rather than move to Southfield.

But the real engine behind all this growth can be found on the buzzing, brightly decorated office floors where teams of mortgage brokers spend all day everyday getting people into new houses. It looks like a scene from the movie “Wall Street” filmed in FAO Schwarz. Our tour guide, who readily admits to being like Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory, peppers his commentary with Silicon Valley one liners like, “We don’t put walls between people, because then they cannot create.” A little surreal for a city that built itself on actually building stuff.

Yet it’s hard to doubt the sincerity of Bedrock’s efforts in downtown Detroit, which total about $2 billion. This is the sort of investment the city needs if it’s going to come back, and so far, few have been willing to cough up that sort of cash. If Gilbert and his companies succeed, they’ll make a fortune—and they’ll deserve it.

“Do good and you’ll do well,” Schwartz says.

Small Miracles in Midtown

A few miles up Woodward, the downtown skyscrapers shrink in the Challenger’s rearview mirror, but a nearly as impressive site appears in my windshield—a Whole Foods. What’s a Whole Foods doing in a city that doesn’t even have a supermarket?

To find out, I park the muscle car in a nearby garage and hop into a five-year old Subaru Forester with Susan Mosey, an urban planner from Wayne State and the executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc.

Whereas downtown is all about blockbuster deals and big-name construction projects, Mosey has spent 28 years developing properties and connecting the cantonized neighborhoods that make up the area. “Most of it has been slow, steady evolution. It’s now paying off. Mosey works the Forester’s five-speed manual as she points out motels, apartments, and storefronts that have been revitalized along Woodward and several side streets. Here’s the boutique watch and bike manufacturer Shinola; there’s a great new restaurant. The few empty or dilapidated properties around here are either under development or will be soon.

The auto industry provides the history and the “bones” for the area, Mosey says. The colorful Museum of Contemporary Art is in an old car dealership. A near-century old warehouse is now the flagship store for Shinola. And then there’s the Center for Creative Studies, one of the best places to learn to design cars. That said, the will and the money for all this redevelopment, along with places for people to work, come mostly from local foundations, hospitals, and Wayne State.

“We’re eds, meds, arts, and culture,” says Mosey.

Woodward Avenue in Midtown might be the most sustainable, flourishing stretches in this city. Yet when I ask Mosey if there’s anything else that needs doing around here, she snorts, “Oh my God, where do I start?” Communal needs include a big movie theater and more shopping. Some neighborhoods, particularly those in the area around the old GM headquarters, remain depressed. Mosey also notes that the most of the development still relies on Midtown Inc. funding since in Midtown, like everywhere in Detroit, it’s tough to finance the rehabilitation of properties that have very low market values. How long until the area and city are truly back?

“It won’t be in my lifetime,” she says.

“Progress”

Most people who commute downtown or Midtown use the freeways. We continue rolling north on Woodward to see what’s been left behind. Remnants remain of what was once a city of neighborhoods, such as the historic Boston Edison district of old auto executive homes. But mostly it’s blight.

No area along Woodward has been hit harder than Highland Park. This enclave community put the nation on wheels as the home to the Model T factory. But it’s been hit hard and hit repeatedly. Ford moved out, and so did Chrysler. A tornado hit in the ’90s, and the city never really recovered.
“Not only that, creating expressways allowed people to move out,” explains Tiffany Ward, a Wayne State student who teaches in Highland Park. “People were still coming there to work, but not leaving their money there.”

Many have fled the poverty and crime. The enclave’s population has declined from about 45,000 in its heyday to fewer than 11,000 today, although Ward notes that there are still families here that have lived in Highland Park for generations and want to stay.

“People there have a sense of pride and positivity… for their homes and community,” she says.

The improvements lower down on Woodward are promising, but with so much of the city still suffering like Highland Park, they can feel superficial, or worse. When l pull my ostentatious Challenger in front of a donut shop at Woodward and 7 Mile road, an elderly black man takes in the bright blue car and the white kids climbing out of it. “Don’t want to get in the way of ‘progress,’” he grumbles as he steps out of our path.

The Donut Hole

We cross 8 Mile, and just like that, are in the thriving suburbs. Lost in much of the coverage of Detroit’s decline is the fact that the metro area remains one of the richest in the country. Riding north on Woodward Avenue through Ferndale, Royal Oak, Birmingham, and Bloomfield Hills is like climbing an economic ladder.

Then, just a few miles past Cranbrook Academy, the ladder breaks and we come crashing down to Pontiac. For a century, the town thrived on jobs from the local General Motors factory. It dwindled for years before closing for good in 2009.

“Pontiac is a donut hole of poverty surrounded by wealth,” explains Brad Oleshansky, who’s waiting for us with hard hats when we pull onto the former factory grounds.

Oleshansky, a lawyer from Birmingham, plans to fill this donut hole with something new: a racetrack and car condos. He bought the 87.5-acre property two and a half years ago from RACER, the trust established during GM’s bankruptcy to clean up and sell the automaker’s old properties. He has already presold more than 100 condos, which range from about $100,000 to $500,000. Eventually, he foresees a “car culture center” that includes performance shops, stores, and restaurants. As we walk the grounds, machinery is chewing up old concrete and rebar to create a smooth bed for a 1.5-mile racetrack.

“Just to get it looking as it does now is $10 million of work,” Oleshansky says.

His project relies on the deep love for cars in the area, and he hopes the local automakers will use his track for marketing events. But at its core, his plan is the same as downtown and Midtown Detroit—turn the industrial into residential and retail.

It’s not an easy transition, and the 300 to 500 jobs Oleshansky hopes to create won’t fill the void left by the contracting auto industry. But as in the communities elsewhere on Woodward, there’s no use in dreaming about the past.