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Living the Loft Lifestyle

Teresa Kalinka is used to people asking her questions about why she moved to Detroit.

One look at her loft, and you'd understand. Huge windows. Stunning views. Open layout. Central location.

Kalinka's crib is part of the Lofts of Merchant Row, a sweet little development on Woodward Avenue near the beautiful Campus Martius.

Is it safe? “Very safe. I'm asked this all the time. I feel comfortable walking (dog) Cooper any time of day around here.”

Does anyone visit? “It's easy to meet up with friends before or after events, whether we're attending. If someone's going to a baseball game, (husband) Chris and I walk to the park and meet up with them, or they'll come over to our place to visit.”

Do you talk to your neighbors? “I've made some good friends in the buildings … Some are in college, some just out of college, business people, empty nesters who decided to move downtown, you name it .”

Is there any food? “There are plenty of resources downtown for basics – between drugstores, Eastern Market and Honeybee Market, if you run out of something, it's easy to pick up.”

Granted, she must take frequent shopping trips to the suburbs to get some basics (don't start harping about no grocery shopping in Detroit; I won't have it. There are plenty of independent grocers and places to get fresh food.)

Want a great view of the Tigers' fireworks? A perfect sightline for the Thanksgiving Parade? A gathering spot for the Detroit marathon? You'll have to work on getting your own invite. Or maybe see about buying a loft yourself when they go up for sale this spring.

Why are loft developments like this one worth writing about? It is because these shiny new lofts are a fairly recent thing in downtown Detroit, according to many architects and builders around the Metro area. For decades, Detroit's downtown area was devoted to shopping or working. It was not necessarily a place to live; that was the neighborhoods that surrounded the downtown core.

These days, Detroit is trying to create a work/play/live paradigm, said Frank X. Arvan, AIA, Principal Architect at FX Architecture in Royal Oak. The biggest growth area seems to be Midtown (the area around Wayne State University). There, you can walk to housing, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Symphony, the Cass Café and lots of other shops.

“Detroit is trying to become a livable city,” Arvan said.

Schostak Brothers & Co. developed the Lofts of Merchant Row about five years ago. It is typical of many loft development around the city. But it stands out in part because of the strong community spirit the residents have developed and the commitment the Schostak family has made to the city to bring residents and retailers here.

Bob Schostak said the company came into the project when Dennis Archer was mayor. The city had identified the five-block area around the Campus Martius development in downtown Detroit. It was the ideal spot: close to businesses, historical sites and it bumped up against Woodward Avenue, the road that practically drives the Motor City. The goal was to make this area the hub of the wheel. Its new life could radiate down the line, putting spokes onto the wheel.

The Schostak company picked out the biggest site it could find – Merchants Row is the former home of the Woolworth Department store, SS Kresge (predecessor to Kmart) and Frank & Seder Co. Department Stores. The two-block area has nearly 40,000 square feet of first-level retail and some 157 loft units above.

Using federal historical preservation tax credits, conventional lending and private equity, companies like Schostak redeveloped the area. The only caveat was the buildings had to remain rentals for the first five years; then, they could be converted to condos. The first buyers will have their chance in spring 2010 to snag a permanent piece of Detroit.

“The easiest thing to do is tear a building down, let it decay or let someone else come and bail it out,” Schostak said. “But we decided to step up. … We're been in business here since 1920. Detroit is our home; Michigan is our base. We firmly believe in what our state has to offer.”

Those first renters were eclectic to say the least, Bob Schostak said. Some voluntarily reversed their commutes, driving to the suburbs so they could support new development in Detroit. Occupancy had been above 90 percent for a long time; now, the rate is lower but still respectable, Schostak said.

“Detroit's worth investing in,” Schostak said. “There's a lot of attributes to downtown living. It's close to the waterfront. It's a rich culture. There's diversity with great districts like Corktown and Mexicantown. There's historical buildings, arts and music. It's a safe, vibrant community.

“People react to headlines. But what's buried behind them are great people,” Schostak said.

The Lofts of Merchants Row consists of studio, one, two, and three bedroom units that range in size from approximately 650 square feet to 3,000 square feet.

Here's the “Househunters” style pitch. The Lofts feature exposed brick walls, vintage hardwood floors, spiral staircases and open duct work. The open kitchens have all-wood cabinetry, granite countertops and a large center island. There are sound-absorbing concrete floors, a 24-hour valet parking garage and a state-of-the-art fitness center. Plus, a complimentary shuttle takes residents around town to Red Wings Games, Eastern Market and the like.

Throw in a bag of chips, and it's all that.

“We invested more up front and put a little more money into them because we wanted higher quality for our tenants,” Schostak said.

Kalinka said she feels like one of Detroit's ambassadors.

“I think when many of us who live here see visitors lost or confused, we try to help them out. I'm constantly asked for directions or where to go. Somehow, people just know I'll have the answer for them. However, it gives me a chance to share Detroit in a great light.”

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