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Taking Back Detroit, One Block at a Time

If you travel down Woodward Avenue toward downtown Detroit, you'll see retail, restaurants, an art museum, a major league ballpark and plenty more.

But there was this little block between Mack and Warren that had seen better days. It was this hideous brown color, the kind of blah exterior you drive past millions of times and never notice. The storefronts were empty; the theater hidden inside was a broken-down mess.

Now, there is life there. Ah, yes. Consider this: rehabilitation of a 32,505 square-foot historic theater and construction of approximately 30,890 square feet of modern commercial space. And as many as 150 new jobs.

Let me introduce you to my tour guide, award-winning architect Michael Poris. Poris' firm is one of those working on the Garden Theater project, a four-phase development that will turn this blighted block into an entertainment hot spot.

Oh, and did I mention the potential for a revitalized (and cleaned-up version) of the Sassy Cat? More on that later.

Says Poris: “There's still stuff happening in Detroit. … “It's not like we've folded up and gone away.”

Amen, brother.

Some history: According to Poris and some independent research, the Garden Theater was one of C. Howard Crane's earliest neighborhood theaters in Detroit. When it opened in 1912, it could seat a little more than 900 people. It was one of the largest theaters built outside downtown at the time, according to Cinema Treasures.

Its auditorium featured, as the name implies, garden-style decoration, giving patrons the feeling of being outside amidst fake vines and birds. It originally hosted both live stage shows (like vaudeville-style shows) and motion pictures, though later the live performances were dropped.

The Garden was closed in 1949, but in the 50s, was used as a nightclub. In the 60s, as the so-called Cass Corridor, along Woodward Avenue, where the theater was located, declined, so did the Garden. By then, it had reopened as an adults-only theater, called the Peek-A-Rama. It was later renamed the Sassy Cat. Its neighbors included a strip club and a pornographic book store.

Poris said the building is on the National Historical Register. In the 1960s, it also was a well-known club for rock music, hosting great acts such as Iggy Pop, Poris said. A fire closed the building permanently, and it has sat empty for more than two decades.

As the 509 Club in the late '50s and as The Village in the early '60s, it was a showcase for talents like Nolan Strong & the Diablos, Gino Washington, the Fabulous Peps, Nathaniel Mayer, and Billy Lee & the Rivieras (later known as Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels). It was a teen hangout that musicians frequented and that resulted in the cross-pollination of rock and soul that epitomizes the Detroit sound of the '60s. It was THE hip place to be in '62-'64.

Back to the present. Some info on Poris (besides the fact that he's mucho fun to talk to): Birmingham-based McIntosh Poris Associates is a full-service architecture, interiors, planning and urban design firm, founded in 1994 by Douglas McIntosh and Michael Poris, AIA. The firm's goal is "to transform buildings, communities, and urban centers with architecture created through vision and dialogue."

The other firm of record is Quinn Evans, who were the architects on phases 1 and 2 and are working with Poris on the historic restoration of the theater.

This particular project, known as the Woodward Garden Block Development, involves the revitalization of one of the last derelict blocks on Woodward. The first phase, a massive 302-space parking structure, opened last year.

The second phase involves the renovation of the Blue Moon, a saloon that had been vacant for a decade, and a new mixed-use retail and office building. That too is finished and ready for tenants, Poris said. The historic two-story Blue Moon, 3961-65 Woodward, also is a major save for the city as it was constructed in 1886.

Phase three will be the revitalized Garden Theatre. It will be a 1,200-person, multi-use live performance theater for music, events, weddings, fundraisers and the like. Poris said the lobby will be dynamite, a real showstopper. He also said the venue, at a whopping 32,000 square feet, will have a front bar and restaurant along with meeting rooms above.

I'm lobbying for the Sassy Cat to come back. That front bar needs a catchy name, something the popular crowds will want to visit.

The final phase will be a market-rate apartment building of five stories or about 60 units. There will be retail at the base. Construction on these final phases will start this summer with hopes of having things up, running and open by next year.

Oh, and did Poris mention that the site will have the new M1 rail running right in front of it? How great is that. You can live there, park there or see a show there, hop on the train and go up to the New Center, downtown or wherever. Location, location, location.

“It's a historic building being restored instead of being torn down,” Poris said. “It really helps the whole area. It makes it much more viable, exciting and safer.”

I cannot wait to attend a concert there, perhaps a fundraiser of Detroit-based bands for a great cause like Forgotten Harvest, Salvation Army or the Greening of Detroit? We'll see. Those are just my ideas.

“There's still stuff being built in Detroit, as hard as it is. It was one thing for people to be building before, when the banks were practically giving out free money. It's another now when the banks aren't giving away anything,” Poris said.

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  • 1

    I really wish some of the positive stuff had been linked to the story regarding the FBI shooting of the Imam. What do building relics have to do with that story? Detroit is experiencing hard times--perhaps more than many other cities, but our city has not been abandoned. We are still here. We live in real houses and send our children to college and visit museums and do all the things that real people in other places do.
    I hope that Time will not continue to feel a need to always give prime time to the down side of things.

  • 2

    I think what Time has done is the reverse of showcasing Detroit's decline. Thanks to this series, I'm actually considering relocating to Detroit from Seattle, with my three kids. The more I read, the more excited I am. Detroit's rebirth is extraordinarily exciting; it's the kind of place where - if you get in now - you're going to be very, very glad that you did. There's so much to contribute towards, so many new opportunities, so much LIFE happening. Seattle's lovely - but dull.

    • 2.1

      I moved from the burbs to the D in 2003. Great experience and have loved every minute being part of community transformation. On my block there are two three year old homes waiting for a family like yours. Good choices for schools. There is a great private school that charges less than $50 per month and has small class sizes (10 to 12 students / class) or a very good K-12 charter school. In the fall of 2011 a new K-8 school will open in the neighborhood.

      I hope you decided to come to Detroit. I offer an invitation to vist our Brightmoor neighborhood and see the glass half full view of Detroit.

  • 3

    Great story. I remember when that bldg was called The Village in the 1960's. I never knew the history or that it was a 900 seat theatre. Thanks for this informative commentary. Love that an old place is being restored. Hope that more old places are restored. Need some restoration in neighborhoods too before it's too late and so much that could be saved is demolished.

  • 4

    Interesting story, but I'm left wondering who is behind the redevelopment, how it's being financed and what that might tell us about how redevelopment is being done in 2010 in Detroit given difficult real estate economics. As Paul Harvey would say, "Now for the rest of the story...".

    Karen, can you shed any light on the business side of this story?

  • 5

    The story on the Garden Theater redevelopment is fabulous news and the comment about Seattle being "lovely but dull" absolutely made my day!

    Woodward Avenue is coming back strong and the M-1 line will make it even stronger. Think about what we have on Woodward within two miles of the Garden Theater -- the Detroit Historical Museum, the main branch of the public library, the Detroit Institue of Arts and Detroit Film Theater, the Museum of Contemporary Art - Detroit, The Whitney restaurant, the Magic Stick, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Max Fisher Music Center, the beautiful Fox Theater, Campus Martius Park and about a dozen grand old churches.

    Go two blocks in either direction of Woodward and add in The Fisher Theater, the campuses and theaters of Wayne State University, the Center for Creative Studies and the Detroit School for the Performing Arts, the Detroit Science Center, the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, the Scarab Club, Michigan Opera Theater, Music Hall, the Gem, Comerica Park, Ford Field, Cobo Hall and Arena, a blossoming international riverfront, and an eclectic variety of art galleries, restaurants and pubs that are well worth visiting.

    Where else in the country can you find so much good stuff in such a compact geography? It's all here in the D. What we need is for more people to get out of their comfort zones and sample it all for themselves. I think they'll be glad they did.

  • 6

    Hats off to this development! I believe that the Woodward corridor will be one of the most desirable places to live in the Detroit area within the next 20 years. From downtown to 8 Mile Road, a light rail train will promote growth and opportunity. Hopefully additional funds will become available to extend the line further out into the suburbs beyond... I believe that the Metroparks development of a park at the State Fair grounds would be an excellent addition too!

  • 7

    Better get here fast before the Mayor and the City Fathers demolish it.

    My quote in the NYT yeas ago still obtains.

    Joe Bianco who lost 20 million for the DIA, was working for Hudsons and he was one of thos slick meretricious bastards who expedite demolition. Nothing but smiling lies.

    Light rail is not the answer. It's another disaster in the making.

    The one in Tacoma has real destinations with Schools at each end and huge parking lots

    Problem is, it is a real fund eater, a financial disaster like the people mover which is now in need of extensive repair.


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