Detroit mansions divided to welcome renters

Posted on November 9, 2012

A Victorian-style home in the city’s Brush Park Historic District is being saved from ruin to address the rental squeeze near downtown, and several more conversions could be on the way.

The neighborhood’s newest development, called The Edmund, is a renovation of the three-story Lucien Moore House, built in 1885 and named after the 19th-century lumber baron.

The city of Detroit is impressed enough with the conversion of the 11,000-square-foot home into a six-unit rental house with three newly built townhome apartments on the property that it wants to renovate some of its other historic houses in the area.

“Our hope is to replicate what took place at The Edmund at some of our properties,” said Karla Henderson, director of the city’s planning and facilities department, about four historic homes that Detroit owns on Alfred Street.

Turning large older dwellings into apartments is a fledgling trend as developers look outside the crammed Midtown and downtown neighborhoods to satisfy a growing hunger among young professionals to live in Detroit.

“In this environment, we’re going to see a lot of this occur,” said David Di Rita, principal at the Detroit-based Roxbury Group developers. “We’re running out of land in Midtown.”

Investors are increasingly drawn to historical properties because they have advantages over new projects, experts said.

They are often cheaper to convert than undertaking a multimillion-dollar construction project, said Di Rita, whose firm is renting apartments at the newly constructed Auburn in Midtown and is redeveloping part of the David Whitney Building downtown into apartments.

Financing is easier to obtain, according to commercial real estate experts. And keeping the charm of old houses provides an aesthetic contrast with new apartment buildings and gives the community a sense of place, said Michael VanOverbeke, managing member of Edmund Place Estates LLC, developer of The Edmund.

City officials expect the Edmund project to help revitalize Brush Park, which is roughly bounded by Mack Avenue on the north, Woodward Avenue on the west, Beaubien Street on the east and the Fisher Freeway on the south.

The area a half-mile from the central business district is filled with fields of weeds and mulberry tree-covered, city-owned empty properties whose signs promised but never delivered rebuilding projects.

“We see this area as significant to redeveloping Detroit,” Henderson said.

At its peak, Brush Park had dozens of Victorian mansions and brownstones, where department store founder Joseph Hudson, architect Albert Kahn and lumber titan David Whitney Jr. lived because it is close to downtown.

The charm of Brush Park and the Lucien Moore House was not lost on VanOverbeke when his group last year began renovating the brick structure. The Gothic-style house underwent renovations under a prior developer in the mid-2000s to become condominiums.

Now The Edmund has five one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartment units that start at $1,100 a month, as well as a third-story penthouse and separate townhomes with garages. Four of the nine units have rental commitments, and tenants will start moving in during the middle of this month, VanOverbeke said.

Investing in The Edmund “adds value to the entire community and brings about the revitalization of the entire neighborhood,” said VanOverbeke, an attorney who owns another building down the street from the Edmund and has his law office a block over in the Hudson-Evans historic home on Alfred Street.

The neighborhood has a mixed record of redevelopment. The city began aggressively buying lots in Brush Park in the 1990s with the idea of turning the historic district into one of the main arteries connecting the city’s core neighborhoods, Henderson said.

Crosswinds Communities built the Garden Lofts at Woodward Place and the Woodward Place townhomes on the south end of Brush Park. In 2004, Detroit partnered with Crosswinds on a project to fill empty lots with residential and commercial properties and renovate four city-owned historical properties on Alfred Street.

But the company went bankrupt, and the redevelopment plans died, Henderson said.

Detroit now owns or is in the process of buying back more than 150 properties in Brush Park, a vast majority of them vacant lots, Henderson said.

The city has lobbied investors to reconsider Brush Park. Officials are working on rezoning the district to allow the construction of low-rise multistory projects that would have housing on the upper levels and retail space on the ground floors.

Earlier this year, developers considered a $29.4 million project to build 756 rental units in an area bordered by Wilkins, Beaubien, the Interstate 375 service drive and Brush. Investors pulled out, though, because they were $3 million short in financing, Henderson said.

In contrast, the completion of the Edmund is encouraging to Erik Tungate, a member of the Brush Park Citizens’ District Council.

“It underscores the high level of demand for urban living,” he said. “There’s an insatiable appetite to live in the greater downtown Detroit area.”

The demand will lead private investors to develop smaller pockets of downtown, going lot by lot, Di Rita said.

“I really think you’re going to see this kind of … development occur, and that’s what’s going to help fill up Brush Park,” he said.

Serena Maria Daniels, Detroit News