Corktown - Detroit
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Sewing the Seeds of Resurgence: Cooley's Catalyze Corktown

The Center for Priority Based Budgeting, (a mission focused organization that provides technical advisory services to local governments, schoold districts, special districts and other non-profit agencies to enable communities to reassess their priorities in order to make sound, long-term funding decisions) recently sat down with Ryan Cooley, owner of O'Connor Realty, to discuss how the Corktown neighborhood is attempting to bring development outside the downtown core and into downtown's neighboring communities.

When you think of areas in Detroit, the two that automatically come to mind are Downtown and Midtown. Corktown is one that is brought up as the City focuses on addressing the needs of its close-in neighborhoods and communities. It is on the edge of Downtown and Mexican town. Its borders are: Interstate 75 to the north, the Lodge freeway to the east (M-10), Bagley and Porter Streets to the south and Rosa Parks Boulevard (12th Street) to the west. Although Rosa Parks Blvd. may have the western border, some still include the Michigan Central Station and other sections still a part of Corktown.

Corktown was first settled in the mid 1800s by Irish farmers who were at the time going through the Potato famine. They moved here and most were from the County Cork, hence the name, “Corktown.” Over half of the residents by 1850 were of Irish descent. Many would serve in the Civil War and as the 20th Century approached, Germans began to move into the area. The district used to be larger, but with the completion of the Lodge freeway and I-75, the district became smaller. Most of Corktown is residential, but the area along Michigan Avenue is mostly commercial.

After finishing high school in Marysville, Michigan, Ryan Cooley, headed to Chicago to attend college. Eight years ago, when most people were moving in the opposite direction, Ryan went against the trend and brought the third generation off-shoot of O’Connor Real Estate to Detroit. Ryan and his wife moved back to Detroit to join his brother Phillip, and other developers, in turning around Detroit’s neighborhoods.

In 1994, when Ryan moved to Chicago to attend DePaul Business School, Chicago’s State Street, resembled Woodward Avenue as it is today. There were predominantly vacant lots and storefronts. However, where it was once only fifty percent occupied, today there are no vacancies. In 2001, when Ryan moved to Wicker Park, a Chicago neighborhood northwest of the Loop, he couldn’t get a cab to take him there, even though condos were selling for $350,000. As young people moved into the neighborhood, and the handful of bars and restaurants grew to more than ten restaurants and twenty bars, the vacant land disappeared. Ryan is striving to accomplish the same transformation for Detroit.

He stated that the opportunities and low cost of entry that exist in Detroit could never have occurred in Chicago. Ryan and his brother Phil briefly considered opening a restaurant in Chicago, but it was too cost prohibitive. While Phil returned to Detroit, he realized the opportunities that existed in Detroit and met partners that would eventually become the Slow's ownership group. This, along with Ryan's desire for a more community focused lifestyle, brought Ryan and his family to Detroit.

The area that is on the rise is the commercial area along Michigan Avenue from roughly 6th to 14th Street. There are already many businesses along the strip that have been there for awhile and are thriving such as: PJ’s Lager House, Nemo’s Bar, the Corktown Tavern, and the Detroit Athletic Company.

There are buildings in Corktown that have been sitting vacant for a long time, but now are finding new life. Slows BBQ, opened in 2005 and co-owned by Ryan Cooley, has since won many awards, ranking as one of the top BBQ joints in Michigan. It sits right across the street from the Abandoned Michigan Central Station (MCS) and the block that it sits on has helped the buildings take new life.

Ryan credited the City's efficient permitting process as Slow's was being developed. The permitting process took only two months and allowed for an expedited construction schedule. However, Cooley also identified the zoning process as a significant hindrance to this and other developments. Cooley states, "The permitting process isn't really the issue, but the zoning is a bit of a mess." And he continues to struggle with zoning in an effort to expand parking at the ever-popular Slow's restaurant and block.

The building that currently houses Slows BBQ was too small as so much business was coming through, that it moved next door, taking over a former Real Estate Agency Building. O’Conner Real Estate moved two doors down next to Astro Coffee and LJ’s Lounge.

One building on the same block is a former Pawn Shop, next to The Sugar House, that has been empty awhile, but is looking at redevelopment and a new use. The former pawn shop was purchased by several partners, including Ryan Cooley.

The current pawn shop, soon to be Gold Cash Gold was purchased on a land contract and thus has had time for construction to get organized. Ryan adds, "The permitting process is complete, but financing has been tricky. Here things don't appraise very well, and market appraisals kill a lot of deals." Assuming the appraisal comes in as necessary, the financing will be complete and Corktown could have a new restaurant open by the summer of 2014.

The plan is to turn the former pawn shop into a restaurant with rental units located above. It has not been said yet what type of restaurant it will be. In the meanwhile, above the addition to Slows BBQ, Megan McEwen, Ryan's wife, has launched a new Bed and Breakfast called Honor + Folly. The ongoing development of the "Slows block" continues.

These are just a few of the renovations currently going on in the Corktown area. And while new businesses sprouting up along this strip of Michigan Avenue is impressive, the neighborhood still has a glut of abandoned homes, crumbling commercial buildings, spotty city services and challenges with community safety.

To address these issues, Cooley at one time sat on the board of the Greater Corktown Development Corporation, a 501(c)(3) with a mission to inspire development in the greater Corktown area, but due to a shortage of funds the community organization ceased operations in 2010. Cooley, undeterred, added that "Corktown has been and is about entrepreneurship."

There is more demand for multi-family and commercial space than availability. Both commercial and rental vacancy rates are nearly at 0%. Cooley states, "The disconnect is that property appraisals are just coming back. Until we get to prices of about $125 sq ft, there is no incentive for new housing construction and with appraisals consistently coming in below the asking price houses for the most part must be purchased with cash."

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