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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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