A retail renaissance in Detroit?

Is a retail renaissance underway in Detroit? One Detroit architecture and design professional thinks so. And he has plenty of evidence to back up his opinion.

Bob Kraemer

Bob Kraemer

Guest post by Bob Kraemer, Kraemer Design Group

Downtown Detroit is a continually evolving narrative, one that I believe would pleasantly surprise non-locals who haven’t read beyond the bankruptcy headlines. Unlike many cities that have gone through a significant decline, Detroit did not tear down many of its historic buildings that formulate its skyline, buildings that are now becoming a huge asset.

That’s not to say that these buildings have all been well taken care of. Many haven’t and require extensive work, but when done right these adaptive re-use projects create unique and culturally significant environments. While the end of the story has not yet been written, it is increasingly clear that the next chapter in the ongoing tale of downtown Detroit’s development re-emergence will have a clear retail focus.

While retail development has picked up across the Midwest in recent years, this particular retail resurgence is unique to Detroit. It is on a different level entirely from what we have seen previously in adjacent satellite communities like Birmingham and Royal Oak. As for the why—or at least the why now—it is clear: Downtown Detroit has residents again. Even better, these residents are disproportionately made up of young professionals with disposable incomes.

While the addition of more downtown residents is obviously a prerequisite for retail growth, there are other factors at play. The money that has been and continues to be invested by Dan Gilbert is substantial, and his development vision and sophisticated understanding of the power of place-making have spurred much more than just headlines.

At the same time, Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch has broken ground on a new hockey arena and downtown entertainment district, a planned $650 million investment that includes extensive public infrastructure improvements and a number of new mixed-use “neighborhoods.” Savvy retailers are taking notice. For the first time in a long time, retail in downtown Detroit makes sense.

The fact that the M1 Rail project is moving forward is another benefit. In the past, investors seemed hesitant to buy in, uncertain if the M1—a 3.3-mile circulating streetcar along Woodward Avenue—was just an empty government promise or if the construction would be too intrusive. And while street-level retail has been hesitant to move into spaces with empty buildings above, the fact that those buildings are filling up now makes retail opportunities both more attractive and more viable.

What is particularly interesting about Detroit’s burgeoning retail re-emergence is that the city’s downtown commercial landscape presents some rare opportunities. With such a notable absence of downtown retail prior to the recent momentum, new retail can be developed creatively and planned carefully to a degree that is not usually feasible.

While the Arena District holds great promise for two and three years down the road, Woodward Avenue is clearly the hotbed of retail development activity today. Additional action is just beginning to filter in to the Capitol Park District. Capitol Park seems likely to be next in line, with momentum picking up significantly in 2015. We are also seeing some new retail around the iconic Z deck, the innovative mural-covered parking structure named for its distinctive zigzag design. Parking availability is generally expanding downtown, especially in the evenings and on weekends.

Despite the optimism and momentum, some challenges remain. One issue is that many downtown storefronts (particularly along Woodward) are quite deep, and retailers aren’t necessarily interested in that big of a space on day one. With more activity, those spaces should become more attractive, especially because they are located in prime spots. Another factor is that many of these locations are part of a local historic district. Consequently, new façade designs need to be approved by civic authorities, adding an additional layer of complexity.

From an aesthetic standpoint, new Detroit retailers have taken differing approaches. John Varvatos, for example, has asked for some local input relative to the look and feel of its space, but has largely stayed true to its proven design concept. Shinola, on the other hand, has somewhat looser brand standards, and has been more flexible about capturing local energy and infusing more Detroit aesthetic into its brand presentation.

Currently, local and regional retailers and pop-ups are leading the downtown charge. But national retailers are already on the way in, and those numbers are expected to grow significantly. Second-generation or second stores from strong local players like outdoor retailer Moosejaw will also play a prominent role. Higher-end retailers will likely dominate, with quality brands, branded entertainment concepts and high-end dining options. We are already seeing a substantial first wave of dining and entertainment. There are already a tremendous number of new restaurants appearing downtown. For large numbers of new downtown residents and businesses, this is the vanguard of what promises to be a very substantial and very welcome retail resurgence in Detroit.

Detroit-based Kraemer Design Group, PLC is an architecture, interior design and creative firm with nearly 20 years of experience in historic renovation and architectural consulting. For more information, visit www.thekraemeredge.com.

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