Detroit developer says trees are key to Core City projects, embraces space

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  • Chris Miele
  • A former parking lot is now Core City Park, a welcoming courtyard surrounded by new businesses.

When developer Phillip Kafka began buying property along Grand River Avenue near Detroit’s Core City neighborhood about a decade ago, what is now dubbed Core City Park was a parking lot overrun with trash and surrounded mostly abandoned buildings. Once Kafka’s team started digging, they discovered an old, razed fire station that once stood here; an excavated stone slab which now stands nearby bears the year “1893” engraved. Today, the 8,000-square-foot park features benches, tables and chairs, a fire pit, sculptures and, most importantly, according to Kafka, a hundred trees.

“I would say this is the project that excites me the most and of which I am the most proud,” he says. Metro timetable over coffee on a recent sunny afternoon. “The park is really the core of this commercial development.

Kafka’s developments through his company Prince Concepts include neighboring Argentinian restaurant Barda (formerly Magnet) and Ocher Bakery. Kafka’s office is upstairs, as is Lafayette American, Toby Barlow’s advertising agency, while Bloomscape florist is just around the corner. Soon, the offices of Gunner and Hobbes, two animation studios based in Detroit, as well as a market next to Ocher. Across the street is TrueNorth, a village-like community made up of nine Quonset huts, or massive, vaulted prefabricated metal structures. Further south is the Caterpillar, a single eight-unit building in a similar style surrounded by wooden porches, more trees, and a winding path – one day, Kafka says, the path will run through all of its developments in the area. region, inviting people to wander through them. The projects helped Prince Concepts recently become the “Best of Practice” developer in the Midwest by The architect’s journal.

Kafka says that when he first moved in, there were only five occupied houses in the area and the buildings surrounding Core City Park were largely abandoned. “They were all empty, abandoned buildings that needed to be renovated, and we had a neighborhood where the five people who were here were excited about whatever we were going to do,” he says. “And so for me, and development, it’s a rare disease.” Creating an inclusive design, he said, was key. “Even the people who go to the soup kitchen next door, they might not come to Ocher Bakery and have $ 3 coffee every day, but they definitely sit on the benches waiting for the bus. “he said.

Kafka says the park is an example of how development should “emerge, not descend”. “You don’t go to a place with an idea of ​​what you want to build and you just impose it on a place,” he says. “You really have to spend a lot of time figuring it out. ”

Kafka is a foreigner in Detroit, or at least he once was. Originally from Texas, he made a career in advertising in New York City, where he says he had an affinity for public spaces. “That’s what makes New York so fun, because if you’re not in your apartment, you’re constantly in the public space,” he says. “Here you spend a lot of time in your car.”

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The Detroit Caterpillar Project has a long porch, surrounded by newly planted trees.  - JASON KEEN

  • Jason Enthused
  • The Detroit Caterpillar Project has a long porch, surrounded by newly planted trees.

Around 2012, Kafka started visiting Detroit. He says he visited the city more than a dozen times in the space of a year and that in the end he bought the building that would become Detroit’s hip Takoi restaurant.

“I was working, working, working, and I started wanting to do more,” he says. “And I came to Detroit, and I was just, I thought it was so interesting. … It is built like a city of 2 million people, and its population is only a fraction of that. So to me, I said, ‘Wow, this is very unique. There is so much space here.

A few years later, he began installing billboards in New York City promoting the then new restaurant (formerly known as Katoi) and also begging New Yorkers to try Detroit. One sign, using an appropriate image of Diego Rivera’s famous Motor City murals, read: “Detroit: Just West of Bushwick.” (At the time, we were skeptical of the campaign, but we’ll be damned: we’ve since heard from at least one guy who saw a sign and decided to move to Motor City.)

“All I can say for advertising is if you do a good ad campaign, you make a good billboard, which can attract people, but that won’t sell them the product,” Kafka says. . “I knew the billboard was supposed to get people to Detroit, but a certain type of person was going to be drawn to it. The billboards weren’t going to change who was going to be interested in this place, but maybe if he sent 10 intrigued people here, one of them would stay.

While browsing the developments, Kafka speaks in Spanish to Caterpillar construction workers, then in American Sign Language to a man walking down the street. Near one of the existing houses on the block, Kafka picks up an abandoned beer bottle while greeting a neighbor sitting on his porch.

“How are you?” he asks. When the neighbor, in turn, asks him, Kafka says: “You know what, every day is a gift from God, some more beautiful than others.

Kafka says he has other developments underway, including a nearby complex of 15 duplexes, as well as a parking lot that will be surrounded by even more trees.

“It’s not the most profitable idea, but if you really believe in the future you plant trees, because that’s what I really believe – planting trees communicates a belief in the future. He said. ” I can not wait. Like, imagine this park 10 years from now when these trees grow up. It’s going to be magnificent. ”

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