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Driving Downtown

Upscale loft conversions and new condos are turning Detroit around

Written by Amy Elbert
  • Designing Detroit

    Standing on the 26th floor of a vacant Detroit office building, interior designer Bob Endres looked out over his hometown and was blown away. “We were meeting with a developer about a condo conversion, and we looked out the windows,” Bob relates. “Here was this panoramic view of the city I’d known all my life. I could see the Detroit River and up Woodward to the ballpark. It was incredible.”

    It is an experience this fourth-generation Detroiter and Motown cheerleader longs to share. As a designer, Bob is working with architects, developers, and others to create luxury lofts and swank townhouses in Detroit’s once deteriorating neighborhoods. Developers are pouring millions of dollars into the city for upscale condo conversions, new townhouses, and other high income housing, fueling what Bob and others hope may be––finally––a revitalization of the Motor City.

    The Detorit Free Press recently reported that “demand for housing is outstripping supply in downtown Detroit, where prices are on the rise, and downtown’s new residents tend to be young, well-educated, and relatively affluent.”

    As a hometown boy, Bob knows the city faces challenges, but he’s optimistic. “Office buildings are being converted into condos and old buildings are being replaced by new housing,” he says. “We’re starting to see things happen.”

    Retail business is often part of the strategy. “There are more amenities like grocery stores that are feeding residential development. We are seeing restaurants in the neighborhoods,” he says. Avalon, a well-known Detroit bakery, set up business in the main level of a Midtown loft conversion, so “residents can grab a cup of coffee and hot bread or a roll on their way to work. That idea is enormously appealing.”

    One example of the movement is the old downtown Book-Cadillac Hotel that is undergoing a $180-million renovation. Slated to open in late 2008, the hotel will have 455 rooms and 67 condos on the top eight floors, plus retail space and numerous hotel amenities, such as a fitness center and an indoor pool. The building was hardly gutted before two condos sold for more than $1 million each, a strong indicator of the market’s potential.

    A few blocks away, there’s another multimillion-dollar conversion in progress. Bob is one of four interior designers selected to create model condominiums in a former bank at Camps Martius Park. The 1960s building overlooking the park was gutted and is being renovated into 250 living units with a restaurant, a grocery store, and a drugstore on the main level. “It’s a sophisticated, modern building, so all of the condos will have a contemporary flair,” Bob says. Prices run about $265 per square foot, with units starting at about $238,000.

    North on Woodward Avenue near the Max M. Fisher Music Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) is another of Bob’s projects. At The Loft Warehouse, 55 West Canfield Street, 30 condos were carved out of an old Detroit public-school book warehouse. The 800-to 1,000-square-foot units are selling for $150,000 to $207,000, and already nearly half have sold.

    A majority of the new downtown residents are young professionals or empty nesters, says Sabra Sanzotta, sales manager for the Canefield street lofts. Many suburbanites are buying downtown lofts as second home they can use for entertaining when they attend nearby cultural and sporting events, she says.

    Bob Endres with his dog Tooter

  • Royal Oak Condo

    In addition to the city center, many of Detroit’s older suburbs, once home to the city’s autoworkers, are building or renovating old structures for housing. Bob design a 2,100-square-foot loft on two levels in a new building in Royal Oak, north of Detroit.  “Royal Oak was a blue-collar city. Now it’s a very toney area. It’s a very desirable address,” he says. An all-glass living-room wall affords a view of a 1940s-era movie theater across the street, complete with a lightbulb-illuminated marquee.

    While bob is optimistic, he knows the city still has its struggles. “I’ve lived here all my life, and for a better part of my adult years, Detroit was in a downturn. But I really feel like it’s changing,” he says. “Where there used to be pockets of housing, we’re now finding residential areas tied together by the symphony hall, the new baseball stadium, and other elements. It’s good for the city. We need to see this.”

    A new condo built in the older suburb of Royal Oak features stained concrete floors and a wall of windows. “It has an urban feel,” says interior designer Bob Endres.

  • A van der Rohe Landmark

    Move over, Chicago. Detroit has the world’s largest collection of buildings in one site designed by Mies van der Rohe. The renowned architect’s signature steel-and-glass townhouses and high-rise apartments were built nearly 50 years ago as part of one of the country’s most successful urban-renewal projects.

    Lafayette Park on the city’s near east side remains a thriving and culturally diverse neighborhood. Interior designer and Detroit native Bob Endres restored and lived in a condo at Lafayette Park and, although he now lives in Bloomfield Hills, he still cherishes visits to the area. “Lafayette Park is the perfect example of Mies’s spare, elegant style,” Bob says. “The simplicity of this space makes it special.”

    The 79-acre green space was originally designed to stave off flight to the suburbs by providing an attractive and people-friendly neighborhood within the city. Van der Rohe’s residential buildings surround a park and are connected by paths that allow pedestrians to walk to a shopping center and school without crossing busy streets.

    “At the outset they were very difficult to sell,” Bob says. “The trees were tiny twigs, so it was pretty barren.” As people began to appreciate the amenities of the neighborhood, the units sold, and, he points out, Lafayette has maintained its integrity over the years.

    “I remember walking through the neighborhood last June when the trees were leafed out,” he says, “and it was absolutely beautiful. It’s a very neighborly neighborhood.”

  • Design Details

    Bob added handcrafted metal gates to accent the original architecture.

  • Classic Style

    Classic mid-century furnishings complement a Lafayette Park unit renovated by designer Bob Endres.