While the world watches Detroit trek through a municipal bankruptcy, Detroit is watching Palmer Park, an early-to-mid-century apartment district that is poised to be the next great comeback neighborhood.
The city has attracted new residents in search of lower rents, prompting near-capacity occupancy in the city’s downtown and Midtown districts. Business districts, universities, and other usual trappings of urban life anchored both areas. Palmer Park, on the other hand, is relatively far-flung from the hustle and bustle. Like so many of Detroit’s older neighborhoods, it was conceived for turn-of-the-century auto barons and executives seeking country homes in open settings, but not too far from the central business district. The neighborhood’s centerpieces are a 30-acre park and a golf course, with a winding boulevard of apartment buildings in styles ranging from Moroccan to art deco to English Tudor.
The area has not been immune to economic challenges. Several of the buildings were abandoned and left in disrepair as Detroiters began leaving the city for its suburbs. Around 2007, Shelborne Development took an interest in the area and bought some of the buildings—throwback names include Sarasota, La Fer, Seville, Madrid, and Eldorado—and began restoring them with a mix of private funds, state tax credits, grants from the city of Detroit, federal historic grants, and other public funding from neighborhood stabilization programs and brownfield credits.
“It was definitely architecture, each one I’d say is a piece of art, really,” said Kathy Makino-Leipsitz, who co-owns the development firm with her husband, Mark, about interest in Palmer Park. “If you’ve been in the area, it’s kind of an irreplaceable neighborhood.”
La Vogue Square, a Moroccan-styled building, was the first to be completed and is now housing residents. Palmer Lodge, a Tudor-style, is near completion. Shelborne’s projects for this year and next include buildings further in the heart of the district: Coronado Square, The Merton, Unity Square, and The Del Mar. The youngest of these buildings was built in 1929. Most of them retained many of their original windows and heating systems well into the 2000s. “It was economically unfeasible to keep running it that way,” said Makino-Leipsitz.
Shelborne gutted each building to bring them up to code but maintained each structure’s original unit configuration. Foam installation and an advanced, more efficient heat-pump system is being installed in each building. “It’s a great feeling to be able to save these buildings,” said Makino-Leipsitz. “To me they’re really irreplaceable. To build that kind of construction today, you just don’t see it.”