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Restored row houses join Brush Park revival

February 7, 2003

BY JUDY ROSE
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Talk about your before-and-after pictures: This pair is a doozy. But as an example of inner-city ruin and resurrection, the story is even better than the pictures.

By the end of summer, the crumbling brownstones in Detroit's Brush Park pictured at right will be restored on the outside to their 1890s splendor. Inside, they'll echo the luxury homes they once were, but with open, 21st-Century floor plans.

The six row houses will be offered for sale in about 60 days, says Bernie Glieberman, CEO of major developer Crosswinds Communities. They'll have three bedrooms, two baths, 2,700 square feet and start in the $400,000s. Crosswinds is not taking deposits yet, but interested buyers can sign up to learn more at the company's Web site, http://www.crosswinds.com/.

This restoration of the Brownstones on John R is the newest good thing to happen to downtown's Brush Park, Detroit's longtime poster child for urban blight.

It joins the hundreds of new Victorian-style flats and townhouses mushrooming north of Comerica Park in a development called Woodward Place at Brush Park, also by Crosswinds. More than 100 of those units, priced from the low $200,000s to about $350,000, have sold.

Eventually, says Glieberman, there will be more than 800 units at Woodward Place. That will include some new designs his company is planning to be more affordable to singles -- lofts and apartment-style units priced from $150,000 to $200,000.

After Brownstones on John R, Crosswinds will restore five old Victorian mansions nearby. Some may be divided into condos of more manageable size. For example, one mansion on Adelaide Street already is restored and divided into two units. Each sold for about $360,000.

This boom in higher-priced Brush Park homes surprised even Crosswinds, which started it. At first Crosswinds' plan was to build condos like Royal Oak's Main Street Square -- the 1993 project that started metro Detroit's current vogue for townhouses.

The Royal Oak project targeted first-time buyers -- about 1,000-1,270 square feet with prices that started in the $85,000-$120,000 range. (Today, they cost much more in resale.)

But Detroit's pent-up need for new upscale housing quickly caused the Brush Park project to escalate. Buyer demand pushed the size to 1,300-1,750 square feet, and prices rose as well.

City held on to houses

It has been more than 100 years since life and real estate were this lively in Brush Park, close neighbor to the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park and Ford Field.

In the boom that followed the Civil War, this was the neighborhood where Detroit lumber barons and industrialists built homes that showed their new wealth. The grandest mansions were built on or near Woodward, lesser ones a couple of blocks back.

During World War II, the huge brick homes became rooming houses for war workers. But they stood firm against urban renewal in the 1950s and civil unrest in the '60s. Even the 1967 Detroit riot claimed almost no Brush Park homes.

But disaster struck in the 1970s, '80s and early '90s. As many grand homes were forfeited for unpaid taxes, the City of Detroit refused to put them back on the market. Preservationists who tried to buy the homes were rebuffed.

They charged that then-Mayor Coleman Young wanted the land cleared for an industrial developer. The city denied it, but between 1970 and 1995, the city acquired 75 percent of Brush Park's houses and would not resell them. Many potential restorers were turned down repeatedly.

So homes would stand vacant for years. Their walnut doors and marble fireplaces would show up in downtown antique shops. Plumbing was stripped for its copper components. Eventually, the structures were beyond saving.

Winds of change

In 1994, Mayor Dennis Archer requested proposals for Brush Park's empty land. By then, just 20-30 mansions survived in the hands of fierce urban pioneers. Two on Adelaide Street near Woodward -- at the north end of today's Woodward Place -- had been restored to showplace status by dedicated owners whose work spanned years. Of all the plans submitted, only those from Crosswinds didn't require a subsidy -- money from an outside source. That firm's proposal was for nonsubsidized middle-income condos that would compete in the open market.

In 1994, that was a huge reach. General Motors had not moved downtown. There was no new Compuware headquarters, no casinos and no new ballparks.

Crosswinds' gamble proved good, but the road from 1994 to 2001 was long. As is typical for city redevelopment, getting clear titles to the many little parcels of land was hard. Brush Park's infrastructure was so old some water lines were made of wood.

When Woodward Place at Brush Park opened its first models 1 1/2 years ago, there was a long waiting list. Today a long block of handsome flats and townhouses are full of new residents who bring life to the street.

On many nights Woodward and its cross streets are jammed with crowds going to the Fox and State theaters, Comerica Park or Ford Field. It's hard to believe that a short time ago this area was so desolate that colonies of wild pheasants nested in Brush Park's vacant fields.

Lafayette and his canoe are just one part of Detroit history. These stories of fighting back from blight are another important piece. It has taken more than one kind of pioneer to bring the city to where it is today.

Contact JUDY ROSE at 313-222-6614 or rose@freepress.com.

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