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Is New Center’s Dining Scene Finally Having Its Moment?

Eater logo Eater 9/19/2018 Dorothy Hernandez
a person preparing food inside of a store: Baked goods at Avalon Cafe & Biscuit Bar in New Center. The cafe replaced Cafe Con Leche in 2017. Baked goods at Avalon Cafe & Biscuit Bar in New Center. The cafe replaced Cafe Con Leche in 2017.

A recent development surge has seen some stellar bars and restaurants setting up shop and finding new opportunities

With its stunning architecture, theater, office buildings, and proximity to residential areas such as historic Boston-Edison, Detroit’s New Center has long been touted as an attractive destination for businesses looking for a place to set up shop. But like many neighborhoods in Detroit, the area faced economic decline that made it challenging for small businesses to stay afloat.

Those challenges were exacerbated when General Motors moved its headquarters from the Albert Kahn-designed Cadillac Place offices in New Center to the Renaissance Center in Detroit’s primary commercial area downtown in 1996. Over the last seven or so years, neighborhoods around Detroit’s central business district — downtown, Midtown, and Corktown — benefited from a resurgence in development and investment. Throughout the development surge, many business owners, including a handful of restaurant and bar proprietors, bet that the next natural wave in development would take place just a mile north of Midtown in New Center. The only question was when.

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Over the years, several restaurants, bars, and cafes have found success in the New Center neighborhood. Their ranks included popular all-day chicken and waffles cafe New Center Eatery; the Fisher Building’s pint-sized espresso bar, Stella Good Coffee; fine dining restaurant Cuisine, and popular bar and grill Northern Lights Lounge.

However, for all the steady businesses, there have been some notable closures. Their owners list the neighborhood’s advantages — its proximity to Midtown’s hot real estate market and Wayne State University, the foot traffic from office workers in nearby buildings, the incoming (now completed) QLine rail system that would connect people in downtown and Midtown to their neighbors to the north — but eventually found it difficult to make ends meet. Still the ever-present drumbeat of boosters encourages ever more interest and investment in the neighborhood. With all this activity, are we finally at the cusp of New Center’s moment?

In August 2015, shortly after its one-year anniversary, Fisher Building restaurant and Tiki bar the Zenith closed its doors. Although the restaurant opened with an almost unheard of rent-free deal, owner Robert Jasper noted numerous challenges during the business’s first year that lead to the closure. The Zenith “got off on a bad foot” from the start, according to Jasper, who said that when he and his co-owner and wife, Melissa Jasper, signed the lease in the Fisher, they were under the impression that the building would be 97 percent occupied. It was not. Because they couldn’t immediately acquire a liquor license, the restaurant operated without alcohol for its first five months in New Center.

The business struggled to handle the ebb and flow of customers. On nights when the Fisher Theatre opened, customers flooded the restaurant. But on other nights, the area lacked foot traffic. Jasper cited other concerns, too, such as construction of the 3.3-mile long M-1 street car line — now known as the QLine — which caused people to avoid driving through New Center along Woodward, and led to a perception that the area lacked parking.

The Zenith was not alone in its struggles. The owners of Cafe Con Leche, a once-popular Southwest Detroit coffee shop, decided to expand to a second location in New Center in 2013. At the time, husband-and-wife team Melissa Fernandez and Jordi Carbonell noted the mixture of workers, residents, and students in the neighborhood, as well as the promise of the M-1 rail, as factors that drew them to lease a space across the street from the Fisher Building. By December 2014 the shop was open. The future QLine was more than two years away from its launch date, and the cafe closed just weeks before the rail line would welcome its first official riders. Carbonell cited greater competition from new roasters and cafes in Detroit for the closure, but also the long Michigan winters that he said caused workers in New Center to stay inside their offices, according to the Detroit News.

Atomic Chicken has had its share of problems as well. The restaurant, which faced numerous delays before opening, had a relatively successful start. However, co-owner Scott Moloney told Eater Detroit earlier this year that after a period in summer 2017 without an air conditioner, “we lost all of our momentum.” After briefly introducing a dual-restaurant format, Atomic Chicken failed to regain its footing in the neighborhood and shuttered in May. Still, Woodpile BBQ Shack, in which Moloney is also a partner, is expected to open a location in New Center soon.

The neighborhood as a whole is seeing strong growth, but it still “has a long way to go,” says Michael Solaka, co-owner of Northern Lights Lounge, who has a background in economic development and was formerly president of the New Center Council (it later merged with the University Cultural Center Association and is now known as Midtown Detroit Inc.). Residential is the key to a thriving neighborhood, Solaka says. When residents move in, “everything follows” after that. The neighborhood is predominantly renter-occupied, according to census data, and according to figures provided by Detroit Future City based on 2012-2016 American Community Survey, about 1,300 people live in the area, with more than 900 housing units.

On the day of the interview, Northern Lights’s patio was packed, as it often is, with a diverse crowd, from college-age students in jeans and T-shirts to professionals still in their tailored dresses and suits. The bar itself is a hot spot for live music, playing host to local electronic DJs and Motown legend Dennis Coffey.

a sign on the side of a brick building
Michael Solaka and his business partner purchased the Northern Lights Lounge building in 2004. Solaka plans to add 10 lofts to the second floor and open another retail space at the property within the next 18 months.

When the last of GM’s employees moved out of New Center in 2001, Solka says it was “the perfect opportunity” to do something in the neighborhood. A few years later in 2004, he and his partner, William Steele, finally decided to buy the bar, which was once a GM employee hangout called Tandem Bar, along with the 20,000-square-foot building it occupies. Solaka has big plans for the property, including building 10 loft-style apartments on the second floor and prepping the raw space on the first floor next to Northern Lights for a retail operation — either for a prospective tenant or, if he has “the fortitude,” a beer and wine warehouse that he would build and open. He hopes to complete the renovation of the first floor and the loft apartments within the next 18 months.

Today other restaurateurs, like Solaka, are jumping on what they see as fresh opportunity in the New Center neighborhood. Spots like East African cafe Baobab Fare, a restaurant from the team behind Selden Standard, a new outpost of the Jamaican Pot, a location of Brix Wine & Charcuterie Boutique, and an Italian restaurant from the owner of Supino Pizzeria are already in the works. Surrounding neighborhoods have also seen businesses set up shop, such as Bucharest Grill and a cocktail bar called Kiesling in Milwaukee Junction, as well as Batch Brewing Company’s “Funk Room,” opening this fall in the North End.

The crush of projects in the area isn’t relegated to restaurants and bars. Development in residential and retail has been fast and furious, with at least 18 major projects in the pipeline. Detroit-based developer the Platform is investing heavily in the neighborhood. It’s building the Boulevard, a mixed-use development at Third and Grand with 231 apartments and retail space, that’s the area’s first new residential construction project in three decades. The developer’s other neighborhood projects include mixed-use property Baltimore Station and office and retail project Lakeshore Global. The Platform recently announced details about another mixed-use project, which will bring 304 residential units as well as a grocery store to what is currently a surface lot.

The company also owns the neighborhood’s most prominent architectural gem, the Fisher Building, which it purchased at auction in 2015. Since then, it has made efforts to lure new players into the Fisher, such as New York’s City Bakery, which moved into the Art Deco edifice in January. The developer has also worked with local food trucks and pop-ups, such as Ferndale-based taqueria Imperial, to offer lunch options in the neighborhood throughout the summer. The Platform’s vice president of retail development, Craig Willian, says the company’s strategy for bringing in new businesses includes evaluating their compatibility with existing businesses. That’s particularly relevant to the food business, Willian says, because a great restaurant will drive foot traffic to neighboring retail businesses and help the neighborhood as a whole.

a person preparing food in a restaurant
City Bakery decided to expand to its first U.S. location outside of New York. It opened inside New Center’s Fisher Building in January 2018.
a sign on the side of a building
A favorite for chicken and waffles, New Center Eatery has operated a successful business in the neighborhood for many years. The restaurant is expected to relocate to a larger space close by along Woodward Avenue.
a person sitting at a table
Stella Good Coffee opened under its current name and format in 2013 inside the Fisher Building. The small cafe serves a clientele of local workers and visitors to the neighborhood.

Midtown Detroit Inc., a developer of some of Midtown’s biggest projects, is also pouring money into New Center. In 2015, the group purchased 11 buildings and last year announced a $7.5 million redevelopment mixed-use project, which entails the redevelopment of Woodward Grand and the North End Collective (now home to a women’s writers collective called the Room). “New Center is still an emerging neighborhood,” says Midtown Inc.’s executive director, Sue Mosey. But “development pressure” from downtown and Midtown is organically moving north, she says.

Some of Midtown Detroit Inc.’s confirmed tenants include an expanded New Center Eatery, the Kitchen by Cooking with Que from vegan chef Quiana Broden; a home furnishings store, Urbanum, and a few other businesses that will be announced soon, Mosey says. It has no space left to lease.

According to Mosey, the market rate for storefronts in New Center is $17 to $22 per square foot. The typical rent for apartments is around $1.90 per square foot. Comparatively, typical rent for an apartment in Midtown, according to a February report by Broder & Sachse Real Estate, was $2.17 per square foot. At the Woodward Grand development, Midtown Detroit Inc. is charging around $16.50 per square foot for small independent stores and $18 per square foot for office space.

Wilda’s, an anticipated restaurant from Lucy Peters, Sopheana Duch, and Max and Eli Sussman, intended to open at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue in June, only to lose its lease with Midtown Detroit Inc. after a falling out with its main investor. But Peters, who co-founded Rose’s Fine Foods, isn’t ready to give up on the neighborhood and is currently in talks with new investors. “We were really excited about that space because of the potential of the neighborhood, all of the development slated to happen out there,” she says.

Dothan Opera House with a store on the side of a road
The corner of Grand Boulevard and Woodward Avenue is being redeveloped by Midtown Detroit Inc. An East African cafe called Baobab Fare is expected to open in the corner restaurant space in December.

With Wilda’s departure, the space didn’t languish for long. It’s now being leased by Baobab Fare, a 65-seat East African cafe and 2017 winner of small-business competition Hatch Detroit. It’s on track to open in December. Husband-and-wife team Hamissi Mamba and Nadia Nijimbere were refugees from Burundi who settled in Detroit several years ago and wanted to introduce their culture and food to the city.

“If you see the area where we are, no one is selling what we’re selling,” Mamba says. Baobab’s lease with Midtown Detroit Inc. works out to roughly $2,600 per month, which was a “a good price” compared to other similarly sized locations they had looked at, and had good visibility.

Evan Hansen and Andy Hollyday, of the popular Midtown restaurant Selden Standard, announced last year they were opening a second restaurant, where the food will be “contemporary American cuisine rooted in local ingredients and coastal European flavors,” Hollyday says. They purchased a vacant Payless shoe store and are doing a complete renovation that will cost upward of $1 million. New Center was a natural fit because of the existing businesses and institutions, such as the Fisher Theater and the St. Regis, says Hansen.

a car parked on a city street
Chef Andy Hollyday and Evan Hansen of Selden Standard purchased a building on Woodward Avenue with plans to open a restaurant there. The renovation is estimated to cost $1 million.
a group of people standing in front of a store
Customers place orders at Avalon Cafe & Biscuit Bar. The new Avalon Bakery location is just a few miles from the original cafe in Midtown and across the street from the Fisher Building.

Mosey agrees that new housing, with a collection of complementary businesses, is critical to making developers’ visions for what New Center could be coincide with reality, but that process takes time. “The key to New Center, like every other district, is density of active storefronts,” she says. “We are hopeful that as many of these come online over the next year, with great shopping and service options, along with food and beverage, the area will begin to gain traction.”

While New Center might still feel like a risky move for a new restaurant business, Hansen and Hollyday are optimistic that Detroit diners will see their new project as another dining destination. Hollyday points to newer restaurants such as Mabel Gray, Chartreuse, Takoi, Grey Ghost, and SheWolf as destinations. Customers would “drive to the middle of a cornfield to eat those chefs’ food,” he says, adding, “and if we do our jobs right, hopefully people will say the same about our new restaurant as well.”

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