Go East Jefferson / Belle Isle, Blog, Jefferson-Chalmers, Lafayette, Live, Marina District, Rivertown, The Villages / Jefferson East, Inc. in Crain’s Business Detroit Jefferson East, Inc. in Crain’s Business Detroit Oct. 20, 2014 Melanie Piana Belle Isle Blog Jefferson-Chalmers Lafayette Live Marina District Rivertown The Villages Crain'seconomic developmentinvestJefferson Avenue East Jefferson corridor draws investors despite challenges [Published in Crain’s Detroit Business on 10/19/14] By Anna Clark You could call Detroit’s East Jefferson corridor a museum of curiosities. It is five diverse neighborhoods along the river: Lafayette Park, Rivertown, The Villages, the Marina District and Jefferson-Chalmers. Together, they envelop the Dequindre Cut, the Jefferson North Assembly Plant, the Detroit Waldorf School and Belle Isle, among other destinations, offering an eclectic window into life in the city. “What’s unique about the East Jefferson corridor is that you’ve got five distinct neighborhoods … and each has various types of investment happening,” said Joshua Elling, executive director of Jefferson East Inc., the community development corporation. (See Q&A below.) But now, an actual museum of curiosities is coming. The Seafoam Palace is in development in the 13,000-square-foot building of a former lumber company office on Kercheval Avenue in Islandview Village, just east of Eastern Market and near the Heidelberg Project. Seafoam Palace, now in development, will display collections from folklore, mythology, the natural sciences, astronomy and more. The museum’s team found the building, which had been vacant for two decades, posted on Craigslist. They bought it for $26,000. Seafoam Palace will display collections of artifacts from folklore, mythology, the natural sciences, anatomy, astronomy, mineralogy and map-making. The museum, which has filed for nonprofit status, will also feature work from mixed-media artists, presentations about “historic adventurers,” and community workshops. “We would like the space to offer narratives about natural and unnatural phenomena and invite our visitors to explore new perspectives and ideas about the world around them,” said photographer Julia Solis, the museum’s co-founder. But opening a business in the East Jefferson corridor comes with unexpected challenges. Solis’ building was built in 1917 and is on the National Register of Historic Places; it has good wood and interesting plasterwork, but after years of vacancy, it requires unusual attention — and expense. A recent successful Kickstarter will fund repairs on the roof and exhibition space, but money for additional work — like linoleum floor removal, hardwood floor finishing, installation of heating vents, electricity updates and new staircase railings — is not yet secured. “Getting the place ready for the public will end up costing much more than we thought,” said Solis. The Seafoam team is seeking a grant writer to move it forward. Its optimistic date for opening is in late 2015, though Seafoam will begin programming “in or outside of the building” by summer. It already had one outdoor event this year: “Animated Curiosities,” a screening of short animated films from around the world. Is it worth the effort? Solis said that support in the East Jefferson corridor helps them build momentum. “We have a strong community that is actively working on making the neighborhood safer and more attractive to new arts and business projects, and we’ve received a warm welcome from the residents who are excited to see a long abandoned building put to new use,” Solis said. More and more investors are making that optimistic leap in East Jefferson, both on a small scale, like the Seafoam Palace, or as a massive operation, like the $60 million Orleans Landing retail and residential development in Rivertown. Rivertown is further benefiting from the completion of the RiverWalk, including Mount Elliott Park, which opened in June as part of a $44 million east riverfront investment by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. In Jefferson Chalmers, the Chalmers Square Project reconstructed three vacant buildings, enlivening a historic district with family-style apartments and commercial space. In the Marina District, Parkway Foods opened a 47,000-square-foot store in a vacant shopping center. This comes in addition to much-celebrated small businesses opening in the past year, including Craft Work and Detroit Vegan Soul in West Village, Rose’s Fine Food in the Marina District and Coffee and (___) in Jefferson-Chalmers. Joshua Elling, executive director of Jefferson East Inc., said investment is multifaceted in the neighborhood. “We always want to have third-place amenities, like bars and restaurants, places where residents and visitors can go,” he said. “But we also think the next frontier is diving into the Marina District and the Mount Elliott business corridor. We really want to support light manufacturing industries that create jobs not in the twos or threes or fives, but 15 or 25 residents at a time.” Elling pointed out that the Marina District has a great deal of vacant land, making it possible to build a strong industrial district that is buffered from residential areas. Craft Work is among the small businesses that have opened in the West Village in the past year. “Jefferson-Chalmers is a neighborhood whose growth we want to see, and the exciting Agnes (Street) strip has just blossomed,” Elling said, “but we want to see a broad cross-section of our residents employed here, especially longtime residents of the neighborhoods.” For residents, housing options are growing. In The Villages, Alden Park Towers has come back to life. The Villages are also seeing a lot of rehabilitation on single-family homes. “It’s hard to find a house in West Village,” Elling said. “They’ll go quickly, even the ones that need a lot of work.” And after being on hold for years, DuCharme Place is a $30 million Lafayette Park residential project, one of the few from-scratch developments in the city. The hope, then, is for East Jefferson to not only become a hub for play and work, but also, for a broad cross-section of the city, a place to call home. Q&A with Joshua Elling, executive director of Jefferson East Inc. How would you describe the East Jefferson community? What’s unique about the East Jefferson corridor is that you’ve got five distinct neighborhoods: Rivertown, Lafayette Park, the “villages,” the Marina District, and Jefferson Chalmers. Each has various types of investment happening. Obviously, the two hottest areas we’re seeing (are) Rivertown, where there’s a lot of energy for larger-scale new development, and the villages, which is a hot real estate center right now. Jefferson Chalmers probably has the weakest (investment) demand, but even here, there’s the success of the Chalmers Square Project, launched to serve new business in the retail district, like Coffee and (___). There’s a lot of good quality retail in a walkable historic business district. What is stalling investment in the district? What’s limiting growth throughout the corridor is ready-to-go retail space, so businesses like the Parker Street Market and Sister Pie, they’ve really had to go in and prepare to fully renovate their space. Especially in Jefferson Chalmers, retail space is so antiquated that it needs a lot of work. It’s good if landlords are communicative and flexible with rents so that it can get good build-outs with quality tenants. We still have a problem in the far eastern area with landlords sitting on property and waiting for their big payday. Also, it’s just a challenge of the Jefferson corridor that a lot of development deals were frozen in time in 2007, 2008. So I think the city really has a chance if it goes out and resubmits development sites, to rebid these projects out and see what happens. What is helping you build momentum in your work? The great thing about the corridor is that there is a lot of collaboration going on. Jefferson East Inc. and our partners are able to work with TechTown Detroit to help support neighborhood retail services. About 15 businesses up and down the corridor — including Rose’s Fine Foods in the Marina District, Rest and Redesign in Jefferson Chalmers, and Walt’s Spirits & More in Rivertown — have received intensive support to help them with capital and good business planning. Jefferson East also has a robust program to clean up trash and provide other services to residents and businesses. In Jefferson Chalmers, we removed 37 tons of trash last year and secured more than 100 buildings. We really work to make the area clean and inviting. Last year, Jefferson East police patrols helped reduce property crime corridor-wide by almost 25 percent. We want to help support the great work of (the Detroit Police Department), which has dove in with major crime interventions in places like the Colony Arms building. One thing I’m very excited about is the growing economic development support team at the Villages Community Development Corp. They have a nice project management team. We found that people starting a business can get hung up on the permitting side, site plans and licensing. We will be able, with TechTown, to help them navigate this and get retail establishments up and going. What is your biggest worry? I still worry about the people who want to get rid of blight by just knocking down all the buildings. We have a lot of very historical districts with their traditional frontage maintained, like the Agnes Street intersection in the West Village, and Jefferson Chalmers. That’s what people seem to be craving; they don’t want to see it demolished for another strip designed for motor-centered retail. We’ve seen the success of more visionary ways of tackling blight than “oh, just knock it down.” There was a Chalmers apartment building that had only three walls; now, it’s family-style apartments. One of the first things we did is make Jefferson Chalmers a historic district, which is not just about historic preservation but about preserving the built form of an area that feels walkable and, we believe, gives it a competitive advantage. People are drawn to denser commercial districts; they want to be able to walk to get a cup of coffee, walk to the grocery store, take a quick bus ride downtown. We value the density and walkability of the urban form, and historic preservation is one part of that. What are the biggest misconceptions about East Jefferson? People have the misconception that Indian Village and Rivertown are all we have to offer. They forget that there are still good pockets of density in Jefferson Chalmers, and unique housing, too. We are really five distinct neighborhoods that cater to different market segments, with waterfront homes in Jefferson Chalmers, luxury high-rises on the Gold Coast, walkable neighborhoods in West Village, a good old warehouse district on the riverfront, and modernist masterpieces in Lafayette Park. With the diversity of housing stock here, and places to live and work — and also to be close to the water and Belle Isle — you really can’t match the amenities here. Also, I think a big demographic of people forget that we are Detroit’s only riverfront corridor. With the resurgence of Belle Isle as a destination driver, as well as historic places like Pewabic Pottery, we expect our location to grow even more appealing.