In its simplest definition, placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and wellbeing. Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy.
In Detroit, nowhere else is that more apparent than in the Midtown community. Over the last 30 years, Midtown Detroit, Inc. (MDI) formerly University Cultural Center Association and New Center Council Inc., have worked to develop the collection of unique neighborhoods that make up the Midtown community into a vibrant destination that attracts and retains businesses as well as residents. By building on our assets from anchor institutions like Wayne State University, cultural gems such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the historical significance of the community and innovative partnerships, we have successfully begun the transformation of this community.
The Sugar Hill Arts District is one of those neighborhoods. It is rooted in Detroit’s historic Paradise Valley, once the center of African–American commerce and entertainment during the early parts of the 20th century. Bounded by John R. Street, Canfield, E. Forest Avenue and Woodward Avenue, this district was known as the “Street of Music” and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007 we partnered with a number of stakeholder members and the State of Michigan to create the Sugar Hill Arts District Redevelopment Plan.
Based on the core principals of placemaking, the project fosters synergies and collaborations between neighboring art providers, retains young Michigan artists, attracts residents with a passion for Detroit’s economic future, brings in art-driven retail and taps into the built-in 24/7 market of Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center. Funded in part by the New Economy Initiative, MDI is bringing that plan to life based on the principals of cultural economic development, physical design and walkability, green initiatives and entrepreneurship.
Combining all of these elements, the Sugar Hill Arts District Redevelopment plan is forging ahead. The first development of the project was 52 East Forest, the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art. The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, a community centerpiece is a 16,000 square feet space that is home to four exhibition spaces, indoor and outdoor performance spaces, an outdoor sculpture garden and renowned vegetarian restaurant, Seva.
Since 2011, several other projects have been completed including 71 Garfield and the Newberry Building Rehabilitation. A mixed-use space, 71 Garfield, provides a haven to artists and creativities to live and work. Comprised of 22 studio spaces and 16 apartments, 71 has consistently seen capacity reach nearly 100% since leasing began. Located across from the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 71 is utilizing green technology, geothermal heating and cooling and LED lighting to reduce energy consumption. 71 Garfield opened its doors in early 2010. The Newberry has been converted to a 28 unit luxury apartment complex that retains its historic character, utilizes a geothermal heating and cooling system.
In 2011 MDI purchased 92 E. Forest, the former Church of the New Jerusalem. Built in 1915, this structure is a two-story brick building in the Late Gothic Revival style . Most recently, this building housed Crossroads of Michigan, a social service outreach agency that operated a local soup kitchen and food pantry from this location. They relocated in 2008 and the building has sat empty since then.
The church will be redeveloped into a music center for the district. Following the examples of this sort of adaptive reuse of churches across the country, MDI believes that this church and adjacent will provide a tremendous opportunity to enhance the area by providing a space to present music and showcase other performing arts programs.
Connecting the district to the other vibrant neighborhoods of Midtown is the Midtown Loop Greenway. Phase I of this project was completed in 2011 the loop connects the campuses of Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center. Creating an attractive and functional place for residents and visitors, the loop includes LED lighting, benches, water fountains for pedestrians, their pets along with lush flower beds and manicured medians. Phase II of the loop began construction earlier this year and will focus on the areas of Third, Second, Cass, Canfield and Willis.
Developing a place that is truly a hub for the creative community goes beyond creating performance spaces, residences and pedestrian friendly paths. These neighborhoods must also include access to a lifestyle they desire. Home to a number of the regions premier cultural institutions, MDI has worked with a number of them and key funders to bring events to the Sugar Hill Arts District that embody its spirit.
Art X Detroit, produced by MDI and The Kresge Foundation, is a biennial multidisciplinary celebration of the arts in Detroit, and will specifically showcase the 2011-2012 Kresge Artist Fellows and Eminent Artist Awardees. Art X Detroit will be held over five days, from Wednesday, April 10 through Sunday, April 14, 2013, and will also feature an exhibition at MOCAD that will run from Wednesday, April 10 through Wednesday, April 28, 2013. All scheduled events, presentations, panel discussions, installations, etc. will be concentrated within Midtown Detroit’s Woodward Corridor. Highly successful in 2011, the event was attended by just over 10,000 people.
In October 2012, DLECTRICITY will take over the Sugar Hill Arts District and the rest of Midtown. Detroit’s newest festival that will showcase site-specific installations of light, sound, performance and video projection by established and emerging artists, lighting designers, architects and Detroit’s ever-growing class of creative entrepreneurs—transforming the Woodward Corridor into an illuminated urban spectacle for thousands of visitors. For two electrifying evenings, the city landscape will be transformed into temporary exhibitions, inviting the public to rediscover these spaces and see them in a new light. It’s all about experimentation, innovation, and showing what’s possible when art is involved.
All of these activities are what placemaking is about. Creating a destination where people want to live, work and play. Creating a neighborhood that connects people, encourages new investment and sets the groundwork for a thriving community for years to come.