Fisher, Kahn renovations to help create lively 24/7 district

Posted on November 15, 2016

The $100-million renovation of the Fisher and Albert Kahn buildings to be announced today shows Detroit has learned the right lessons about what works to create lively city neighborhoods.

Rather than betting all on a single extravagant use — a casino, say, or a retail mall — developers Peter Cummings and his partners plan to pack as many varied uses as possible into the landmark Fisher Building and the nearby Albert Kahn Building.

Office, residential, retail, restaurants, theater, and cultural exhibits all will play a role in the plans they announce today. This diversity of uses will give many different types of people reasons to be in the New Center district 24/7 — the starting point for a lively pedestrian-oriented urban environment.

Details remain mostly under wraps still as to the new tenants the developers are recruiting. Real estate insiders have said that a Restoration Hardware is expected to occupy some of the ground floor of the Kahn Building, and the developers may reveal some more details Thursday at an announcement ceremony about the overall project.

Work is already underway shoring up the Fisher’s marble exterior while a team from EverGreene Architectural Arts began doing survey work ahead of restoring the paintings and frescoes in the building. The Platform team is also working on several leases with retail tenants to increase the amenities in New Center, including what the developers described as a marquee restaurant and other businesses.

“Without the rebirth of the Fisher Building, there is no rebirth of New Center,” said Cummings. “As stewards of this building, we carry the responsibility to return the building to its former glory as the centerpiece for the rebirth of the New Center neighborhood.”

Those plans now promise a lively pedestrian-oriented district in New Center — and a boost to nearby neighborhoods as the development vision spreads even farther.

Detroit, like most cities, took awhile to learn that multi-use is better than single use. The city’s three casinos, while money-makers in themselves, mostly stand alone as islands unto themselves. Decades ago Detroit, like many U.S. cities, built housing projects for poor people in much the same way, as self-contained and therefore self-limited districts that accomplished little for street life.

Cummings and his partners understand that a district needs as many draws as possible to bring in as many different people as possible through day and evening hours. Some of the new residential tenants in the Kahn Building will no doubt work in the Fisher Building or at nearby Henry Ford Hospital. Outsiders will visit the shops and restaurants. Each new use reinforces the others.

The nearby northern terminus of the Qline streetcar that will begin operating in 2017 will bring yet more potential users to the district. And these projects in the New Center district, so central to so many other neighborhoods like the North End and Woodbridge, hold the potential to spur more pedestrian-oriented development in nearby areas.

Half of the developers’ $100-million investment will go to renovate the Fisher Building with its Fisher Theatre. The other half of the investment will convert the adjacent Kahn Building, now mostly office, into 162 apartments and retail and office space on the first and second floors.

And the Fisher Building’s magnificent lobby and arcade, one of the city’s architectural jewels, will be enlivened with rotating art and photography shows known as the Beacon Project, adding yet another layer of interest and reason to be there.

Cummings and his partner Dietrich Knoer are operating through their entity known as the Platform. In addition to the Fisher and Kahn buildings, they broke ground last month on Third & Grand, a new 231-unit apartment building with ground-floor retail that will rise on the corner of Third Avenue and West Grand Boulevard, a block west of the Fisher Building.

Echoing the theme of diversity of uses and users, Knoer said that the projects “are building on New Center’s existing urban fabric, superior accessibility, and history in arts and music. The district will be walkable and rich with amenities that will attract office users, residents and visitors alike.”

Enlivening the lobby and arcade of the Fisher Building with artwork, photographs, and performances plays a key role in the project, he added.

“The reactivation of the Fisher Building Arcade is one of the most important things we can do as stewards of this iconic building,” Knoer said. “Our goal is to make this the great public space for this city that it was designed to be. This is in keeping with our overall mission of activating New Center and other neighborhoods, and of creating equitability and sustainability through our development approach.”

And in remarks prepared for an announcement ceremony this week, Cummings added, “Today, we reintroduce the Fisher Building and redefine its place in the city of Detroit. … The Fisher brothers wanted more than just an office tower, they wanted this building to serve as a shopping and entertainment district, a public gathering place. We believe in that original vision.”

The Fisher Building’s ownership group — comprised of New York based HFZ Capital Group, Rheal Capital Management and the Platform — acquired the Fisher and Albert Kahn Building and 2,061 parking spaces in New Center in a public auction in July 2015. The group has worked since then to develop its plans.

And when those plans come to completion, another piece of Detroit’s revitalization will have been put into place.