A battle is underway in Detroit's West Village neighborhood, where some residents — plus Nicole Curtis, the host of The Rehab Addict and Rehab Addict Rescue on HGTV — are fighting a Detroit developer and his vision for a new four-story apartment building.
Behind the scenes, it's been ugly — and personal.
One resident opposing the development has sent repeated text messages to the developer, Clifford Brown, including one that mocked his weight and the clothes he wears. After what Brown said in one day's exchange was a text message every 15 minutes for more than eight hours, he threatened to take out a personal protection order against the sender.
And the opposition group is not slowing down, recruiting Curtis, the Metro Detroit native who is active in Detroit home restoration, and her considerable social media megaphone — she has more than 300,000 Instagram followers and 1 million on Facebook — into the fold.
A couple of months after I reported that Brown's plan involved tearing down a pair of run-down houses on Van Dyke Street near Coe Street (more on those in a little bit), a small but vocal band of residents in the area led by one Parker Street homeowner became upset about the planned demolitions and began voicing other issues raised in an online petition.
They include, but are not limited to, the following (I've included some of the counter arguments):
• The building that would replace the two homes is too big. (Counterpoint: Within a couple blocks of the site, apartment buildings include the 11-story Parkstone, 8-story Parkhurst, the 6-story 1000 Van Dyke and the 5-story Village Park Apartments at 1085 Van Dyke, to name a few. Two blocks away, the new four-story, 92-unit Parker Durand sits at Parker and Kercheval, technically in the Islandview neighborhood immediately across the street from West Village and outside of the local historic district.)
• It disrupts the historical character of the neighborhood. (Counterpoint: Residents voiced little concern when the first phase of The Coe was built in 2017, looking very much like a Modern Apartment Building as The Coe II would look. There was some pushback during the Parker Durand approval process, but James Van Dyke, executive vice president of co-developer The Roxbury Group, said they "melted away" once the building started construction. In addition, in other areas, such as downtown and Midtown and Corktown, new buildings are not constructed to look like the older buildings; those new buildings do not threaten historical character in those areas, just as The Coe II would not.)
• Parking availability will be negatively impacted. (Counterpoint: The Villages Community Development Corp., in a letter, says that the development may actually help improve parking with the reconstruction of an alley in the area. "This is the single best way for residents on that block to be able to access their backyards, so as to be able to build either a carport or garage, which is the most enduring method of securing permanent off street parking for residents," the Talk of the Villages email newsletter from April says. "This has the potential to actually improve the availability of parking for residents adjacent to the development." In addition, even in the Parker Durand, not every resident has a car, and The Coe II is expected to follow a similar pattern. However, the West Village Association has expressed concern about the impact on parking.)
• It would be a strain on the infrastructure like sewers and drains. (Counterpoint: I'm told that's likely not the case. "The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has not performed water and sewer infrastructure assessments in this neighborhood within the last five years," said Bryan Peckinpaugh, public affairs director for the DWSD. "The city's water and sewer systems were designed to serve 2 million people and we believe it can support the capacity necessary for this residential development.")
• Negative impact on neighboring property values. (Counterpoint: The city says property values are expected to rise 30 percent on average; residential property in Detroit, once valued at a low of $2.8 billion in 2017, is now tentatively $4.8 billion. My colleague Arielle Kass reported earlier this month that home sale prices in Detroit saw an 18.1 percent increase year-over-year in May median home sale prices, according to RE/MAX of Southeastern Michigan, and a 21.3 percent increase, according to Farmington Hills-based Realcomp Ltd. II.)
• Developer engagement that has been "rife with late and misleading information." (Counterpoint: The WVA in an October letter offering its "conditional support" of the project to the HDC said that "Woodborn Partners and specifically Clifford Brown have been excellent partners in the neighborhood and would go so far as to say they set the standard for community involvement amongst developers in the area.")
Brown said in a statement on Monday:
"We have spent over two years engaging the residents of the West Village and working on a project that will bring density, affordable housing, retail, jobs, etc.," he said. "At each step, we have communicated progress and worked to identify compromises in areas of resident concern in which we can make changes and still have a viable project. Most of the people we have encountered have been supportive and interested in seeking solutions that meet each other's needs and benefit the entire community. There are others who have chosen a different path. As evidenced by our commitments in Hubbard Richard, Brush Park, Lafayette Park and West Village, our focus remains on Detroit, its residents and its neighborhoods."
For one answer to that, I turned to Amber Cecil, who lives on Parker Street nearby.
She's been among the most vocal on social media and elsewhere opposing the project, at least in its current form.
She stressed Monday that she and most others pushing back against The Coe II are not anti-development.
"It is not a campaign or a debate of historic (preservation) vs. housing, or pro development vs. no development," said Cecil, who said she bought her home in 2018 and had rented in the neighborhood as far back as 2007.
She said she first became aware of the development plans several months ago when she noticed a sign about a community meeting on the project.
"It was always an issue of capacity," she said. "It just looks like you're trying to shoehorn something in that really should have been half the size, and I still feel that way. So then I started asking my neighbors, 'Hey, have you heard about this," and showing them, and they're like, 'Oh my god, that's huge.'"
Cecil also had concerns about the community engagement process, which she said was lacking and didn't give residents around the site enough time to mull the development and its implications, an allegation that has been disputed. "How are you supposed to engage if you have 24 hours notice and the other days are past," Cecil said. She also says that she, too, has been called names ("bully" being one of them) and that some have tried to silence her voice in the process.
Over the course of several meetings with various groups, Cecil said people continued to voice their concerns, with little taking place to address them. One of those concerns has been that the home at 1532 Van Dyke has been tied up with Brown in a development agreement with the Detroit Land Bank Authority, and others who have attempted to purchase it have been rebuffed.
And Curtis has publicly tussled with the land bank over property on East Grand Boulevard in an ownership dispute.
So at the suggestion of one of her neighbors, Cecil engaged with Curtis over social media by tagging her in a post.
After that, the two connected.
"I gave her the rundown and she immediately was fired up," Cecil said.
Which brings us to Curtis, who said in an interview last week that she has invested "a couple million dollars restoring houses in the area," including in West Village and in nearby Islandview.
Cecil posted a video on her Facebook page of Curtis, a Metro Detroit native, scoping out one of the Van Dyke houses planned for demolition.
Curtis told me last week that she will "of course" get "involved" in the effort to save the homes, and questioned the HDC's decision to allow them to be razed in the first place.
"Honestly, what the f--- is the sense of having a historic district when you're going to sign off on demolishing houses in your historic district," she asked. "This is just a ridiculous thing that's happening all across our city, where you have historic homes that are protected, because it's in a historic neighborhood, and we're allowing these developers to tear them down to build these God-awful nightmares.
"I'd rather have empty, moth-balled buildings than this thing where we're coming in and we're absolutely demolishing our history faster than it's ever been done before, and it just sucks, to put it lightly."
Signs pepper front lawns: "Let's keep West Village historic" or "Save these historic homes."
The HDC says the two homes date back to the 19th Century.
And although the organization was lukewarm, at best, about their demolition, it ultimately signed off on it even though they had wanted the houses moved instead (something Brown has said would be cost prohibitive, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars).
"HDC staff, who are also of course planning staff, did agree that additional density and housing on Van Dyke is desirable and appropriate for this corridor, and that transforming the current (mostly) vacant condition of this block is a major opportunity that would merit any loss of integrity incurred by moving these contributing buildings," staff wrote.
One of the homes, located at 1514 Van Dyke, is likely at least from the late 1880s, the HDC says, "associated with the earliest period of development in this district." The occupied home "appears to be in fair to poor condition."
The other home, located at 1532 Van Dyke and owned by the land bank, "appears to be in a salvageable condition typical of many vacant Detroit houses." It's at least 125 years old.
Both homes have undergone some historically inappropriate modifications, the HDC says, and have been through a lot in recent years.
In particular, a November 2013 fire severely damaged a pair of homes that sat in between 1514 and 1532 Van Dyke. Those homes were at 1526 Van Dyke, where the fire started, and 1518 Van Dyke, where the blaze spread, the HDC says.
They were demolished in 2015 without HDC review.
More supply of housing, whether market rate or affordable, is a good thing in that it either directly or indirectly helps, bit by bit and unit by unit, address a key concern in Detroit.
And in a city that continually struggles to meet the affordable housing needs of its 600,000-plus residents as housing costs continue to rise even though wages in Detroit generally haven't as Area Medium Income is increasing region-wide (and inflation is salt in the wound), increasing the number of available units should be a primary goal.
With 54 units of supply — 50 apartments and four for-sale townhouses, including 10 affordable units at 80 percent of the federally-designated AMI (yes, "affordable" is a fraught term, as we have written about) — The Coe II would seemingly help address that.
In recent days, the city has received good news: In an "affordable housing Christmas Day," four projects with 183 units for people making no more than 60 percent of AMI were awarded nearly $38 million in low-income housing tax credits from the state on $60.9 million in development, my colleague Arielle Kass reported.
Donald Rencher, Detroit's group executive for housing, planning and development, said during an event last week that "the need for affordable housing is vast."
"There's no doubt we need to bring on more," he said.
What impact public West Village pressure has on this effort that would bring 10 more units in the neighborhood will play out in the days and weeks ahead.
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