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07.07.2014
Chop Shop
Detroit designers transform an auto shop into a startup incubator.
Time for a tune-up? Located in a former auto garage, Practice-Space brings together creative types and entrepreneurs in the Motor City.
Catie Newell

Detroit-watchers near and far may be familiar with Corktown, a happening neighborhood home to converted lofts, trendy eateries and innovative redevelopment of empty lots and other spaces. A few miles north is an almost prairieland, with acres of vacant lots and few residences in between. North Corktown is a strangely quiet, sparsely populated neighborhood of Detroit that has drawn interest due to its proximity to Corktown and other near-downtown areas, but with a lower cost of entry. Redevelopment of the area, which is peppered with Victorian homes and multi-family residences, has been slow and meticulous compared to faster-paced action elsewhere.

In one former auto garage is Practice-Space, an incubator of architecture and design that brings together creative types and prospective entrepreneurs. Designed by a dozen architects and students from Michigan, the space largely resembles its garage beginnings—no walls were added or torn down, leaving open workspaces with modern touches. The exterior is nearly untouched except for a faceted metal covering shielding the floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing light in but also acting as a deterrent for thieves. “It keeps someone from throwing a brick through the window,” said Justin Mast, Practice-Space’s program director.

 
Kyle Hoff
 

Inside, workspaces have been constructed largely with the use of three materials: stacked plywood for desks and other flat surfaces, two-inch steel tubing, and polycarbonate panels. “You should be able to tell what’s old and what’s new, but the new stuff shouldn’t detract from the quality that the old space provides,” said Mast.

The former garage was taken over by Practice-Space after its owner, an engineer in the automotive industry with strong ties to the neighborhood, sought out someone to take over the space. Practice-Space opened nine months ago, but word of the ongoing renovation quickly spread, attracting new neighbors to nearby homes and encouraging the improvement of other properties in the area.

Since opening, Practice-Space has helped to incubate five projects in Detroit, two of which are still ongoing. “We’re most interested in projects that are not happening in downtown and Midtown, and finding alternative ways of building projects in other neighborhoods,” said Mast.

Catie Newell
 

Of all the incubators in Detroit, Practice-Space may be the only one that assists with design. Entrepreneurs come to the incubator with an idea for a business, be it a coffee shop or community center. Practice-Space then provides architectural input with some of its in-house team—or can bring others on board—and also provides resources for financing, construction, and other necessities for bringing the project to life.

Its current projects include two up-and-coming businesses near the Motown Historical Museum on the west side of town: a clothing store opened by a veteran firefighter in an old liquor store, and a bookstore/gathering place operated by a leading local activist in an older home. “We choose not to focus on money, but set people up with a team that’s there to support the vision, and not the other way around,” said Mast. “[Entrepreneurs] need to articulate what their vision is. We’re not a money giveaway contest.”

Practice-Space also allows for its team to work on its own projects. Mast helped get the space off the ground with Kyle Hoff, a Chicago architect who left his job to move to Detroit. In the facility, Hoff co-designed the “Floyd leg,” a clamp that can convert any flat surface into a table. Hoff was able to raise more than $250,000 to manufacture the product as a result.

And Mast himself has utilized the space for designing The Mack Center, a community center in an aging space that links Indian Village—an old-money, mansion-lined enclave—with Pingree Park, a denser neighborhood with smaller colonial homes. “We’re very focused on cultivating ideas,” said Mast. “We throw in everything we’ve got, and get a lot of people involved in the community.”

Aaron Foley