TechTown Living Room – the next big thing in Midtown Detroit

communities / Article

Knight Foundation supports Midtown Detroit Inc., a nonprofit planning and development organization, to create vibrant urban places that cultivate opportunity and help attract and retain talent. Below, Alex Feldman, a senior associate at U3 Ventures, writes about a new award for the nonprofit and the launch of a neighborhood project. Photo credit: Sasaki.

Today is a big day for Detroit. Despite negative national headlines and the Detroit city government in bankruptcy, Midtown Detroit Inc. is being honored as an example of a global best practice in real estate development. Yes, a global best practice.

Midtown Detroit Inc. has been awarded the ULI Global Award for Excellence – which is widely recognized as the real estate industry’s most prestigious honor. The award, bestowed by the Urban Land Institute, recognizes superior development efforts that go beyond good design, including leadership, community contribution, public-private partnerships and financial success.

The nonprofit and its president, Sue Mosey, certainly deserve this honor. I have had the privilege of working with Sue since 2009, when Detroit’s philanthropic community engaged my firm, U3 Ventures, to develop a series of anchor institution strategies that are part of the package of developments and initiatives being honored with this award.

In five years, I have seen Midtown Detroit transform into a more vibrant district with a burgeoning retail and restaurant scene, engaged anchor institutions that have incentivized their employees to live in the neighborhood, and scores of new development projects both planned and completed, including a new Whole Foods Market which opened in 2013 – the first upscale national supermarket chain to open in the city.

There are many partners involved in this effort, but it would be difficult not to credit Sue, who has been working with organizations in Midtown for more than 25 years. Sue is the conduit through which development in Midtown surges – connecting developers to capital, projects to parcels and entrepreneurs to retail space. She is the mayor of Midtown.

While this award marks an important milestone in Midtown’s progress, much more is planned. Thanks to a grant from Knight Foundation, Midtown Detroit Inc., in partnership with U3, Boston-based planning firm Sasaki, and San Francisco-based designers Rebar, will begin design work on the TechTown Living Room. It will be an innovative new public space that will serve as the heart of Midtown’s TechTown innovation district. The Living Room was born out of the TechTown district plan, which envisions a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood that leverages the neighborhood’s existing anchors: Henry Ford Health System, Wayne State University, TechTown (the district’s eponymous business accelerator), Next Energy, and the College for Creative Studies.

The Living Room will transform a parking lot at Cass and Burroughs streets into an active and dynamic public space. The effort will be led by Sasaki, an internationally respected design firm that has worked on projects such as Cincinnati’s Riverfront Park and is responsible for the TechTown District Plan, in collaboration with Rebar, which is nationally recognized for creatively transforming parking and other hardscapes into public spaces. The Living Room will connect directly into the TechTown’s new co-working space, which will be home to more than 400 entrepreneurs. It will also use dynamic programming and a cafe to help bring together the more than 10,000 people who work, live or go to school within a few blocks of the site.

When completed in the summer of 2014, the Living Room’s engaging design and active programming aims to have a catalytic effect on the district and ensure there is a place for casual collisions between the district’s many entrepreneurs, students, researchers and creative businesses.

The Living Room is just one of many projects that will change the landscape of Midtown Detroit over the next several years. Midtown Detroit Inc.’s careful stewardship of its neighborhood has proven that Detroit – often thought of as the poster child for urban decline – is a relevant example of urban regeneration. 

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