Think of Austin Black's story in relation to the prodigal son, but in a good way.
The Midtown-based real-estate agent grew up in a combination of the city and its suburbs, received a degree in urban planning from Cornell University, traveled the world, lived in Rome and returned home to sink roots in Detroit. He opened his own brokerage, City Living Detroit, with one dedicated agent besides himself and uses it to leverage old attitudes about Detroit's into golden opportunities.
"I have always had a love affair with the city of Detroit that goes back to my earliest memory," Black says. "Detroit created my love affair with cities and urban planning. I see what as I do now as giving back to a place that really influenced who I am today."
The Downtown Detroit area is seen as a bright spot not only in the city but also the region. How do you see this area growing or evolving over the next 5-10 years?
There are things that will bring things together. The Woodward light rail will connect a lot of traditionally strong, growing areas in downtown, Midtown and New Center. I see a potential for Boston-Edison and the Palmer Woods area to benefit even more. People want that single-family home and still be connected to an urban center via transit.
Many of the city's biggest recent real-estate developments are redevelopments of historic structures, such as the Book Cadillac Hotel, the Kales Building and the Fort Shelby Hotel. Should we focus more on redeveloping existing building stock?
From personal experience with clients, we definitely need to focus on historic preservation. We need to ramp it up and the city needs to make it a priority. History sells and equals higher value. People will pay more for history. There is a story to tell and people equate that to value. People don't want a cookie-cutter home that can be replicated in Royal Oak or even Chicago or New York. A building in the city has its own story and uniqueness that can't be replicated. There definitely should be a focus on historic preservation as a means to attract people and sell the city.
Does that mean a Willy's Overland Lofts has more value than the Ellington?
Absolutely. Having a unique product is where the value is. There might be similar loft developments but the actual structure and spaces can't be replicated. That's a rare commodity. Not to knock new construction, but it doesn't carry the same value as a historic rehab.
What about the value of new versus old where people would be attracted to the shiny of new and afraid of the structure integrity of old?
The history is more important than anything else for the people that are attracted to living in Detroit right now. A renovated building can be new. Look at the Book Cadillac. It's new in a lot of respects but it's still a historic building. It's nice to fill a vacant lot, but when you compare new construction to a historic structure, the value is in restoring that historic structure.
Light rail is commonly seen as a game-changing asset for a community in regards to economic development and quality of life. However, Detroiters have been automobile-reliant for generations now. How do you reach them so they understand what is at stake with projects like the Woodward light rail and regional mass transit agency?
The only way to show people is to have them experience it. Once the Woodward light rail happens, and it will, people will see the benefits. The next step will take a shorter amount of time than the first step has taken. People will be able to see the impact on their communities. They will be able to experience it.
Bicyclists appear to be a fast-growing segment of the population in the city, especially in the downtown area. From an urbanist point of view, what does this say about the city and where it's going?
We're definitely going in a positive direction with that. It's all about what attracts people to the city. That's just one step for us.
You went to college at Cornell and have visited or lived all over the world. How important is this broader perspective?
It's extremely important. When you live and experience different things you will look at things with a fresh perspective. You see other places have challenges. When I lived in Rome, that city had one of the highest crime rates in Western Europe. That didn't stop me from walking around at night. If people here have that concern about crime, that perspective allows me to address it another way than if I had always been here. It helps me explain the real side of the story. It allows me to do my job to the best of my ability.
Why did you decide to come back here to start your business? What should Detroit do to attract more of your peers?
When I graduated in 2003, I did look at other cities, like New York and Washington, D.C. I wanted to have a meaningful career that gives me a sense of purpose. While DC and New York are great, I wouldn't have that same opportunity to provide that impact. It wouldn't be as fulfilling to me. The city needs to market itself as an open place to ideas and people. It basically has to say, "You want to get involved in improving the city? We'll welcome you. We'll help you the best way we can."
So the city has to advertise the opportunity and demonstrate the viability of it?
Exactly. Detroit has a lot of corporations. They have to embrace Detroit. When they try to attract people, they need to sell Detroit hard. They can't say you can work here and live anywhere but Detroit. That makes the region and the corporations look bad. A lot of places have come around to the idea that to attract the best and brightest you need a strong central city. You need to be able to tell people they have lots of options.
Could changing the perception of Detroit to a successful city be as simple as reinvigorating the Woodward corridor?
Yes. A lot of people take their experiences of one part of Detroit and it's a blanket statement about the entire city. People's perception of Detroit would begin to change by transforming Woodward, because it's such a visible part of the city. People would begin saying Detroit has good and it has bad. That's the difference between Detroit and most other cities. Those cities have both the good and the bad and most people see the good. People come to downtown Detroit and see boarded up storefronts on Woodward from Campus Martius to Grand Circus Park. That creates an impression about the city and it reinforces stereotypes.
Should we be following what other cities did in regards to land use or creating more of our own path?
We shouldn't follow other cities. We should study and understand them. Certain things they have done have been successful. Others have not. No plan is perfect. We can't copy other places. If you do we're bound to fail. Looking at Detroit as a unique situation you'll have to say in downtown this is going to work but it's not going to work in Brightmoor. It's all about having a vision and saying where do we want Detroit to be 5, 10, 15 years from now.
Initiatives like TechTown and the Creative Corridor are aimed at reinventing the city. What sort of impact do you see programs like these having over the next 5-10 years?
I participated in the FastTrac program at TechTown. It gave me the knowledge and confidence I needed to start my own business. There are several other entrepreneurs who have opened up in the neighborhood that went through the FastTrac program. Its shifting the idea of everybody works for someone to being your own boss and have my impact on my community. That has a tremendous impact on the way this area looks and what it will become. TechTown is a great resource for this area. The Creative Corridor could take the same spin but from a creative standpoint. Its appeal could go beyond entrepreneur and be used as a tool to support existing businesses.
Jon Zemke writes about startups for Model D. Send feedback here.
All photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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