Since its inception in June, 2015, Develop Detroit, which received startup capital from JPMorgan Chase, has been on a mission that focuses on real estate development and providing living opportunities that meet the real needs of Detroiters. Simply put, Develop Detroit, a full-service non-profit real estate development organization which specializes in a broad range of real estate projects in Detroit, has become a visionary leader in developing and redeveloping multifamily and mixed-use housing developments, single family home rehabilitation, commercial properties and community centers.
“We develop high quality housing for everyone,” said Sonya Mays, president and founding CEO of Develop Detroit. “We build apartment buildings, mostly rental, but we also build town houses and homes. We are focused on creating communities that reflect Detroit. We are not an affordable housing organization, per se, but we do a lot of affordable housing development.”
Last September, Develop Detroit, in a partnership agreement with Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, took control of University Meadows, a senior apartment complex located on Trumbull Ave. (between Canfield and Forest) on the city’s west side, just west of the John C. Lodge Expressway.
According to Mays, the 20-year old University Meadows complex has 53 units offering senior residents with moderate income a country style of living. With warmer weather prevailing, Develop Detroit is preparing to make full interior and exterior upgrades to the complex, as well as offering residents more programming and activities of empowerment. Develop Detroit and Presbyterian Villages of Michigan are working together to advance a management agenda for the day-to-day operations of University Meadows.
“I just love the beautiful scenery outside and around University Meadows, as well as how elegant the inside looks,” said Paulette Tarvar, a resident of University Meadows for seven years. “It’s very quiet, and the location is like being in the middle of everything. Its closeness to downtown, Midtown, the cultural center are major pluses. It’s just beautiful, and Develop Detroit is making it more beautiful.”
In addition to University Meadows, Develop Detroit, in joint partnership with the Preservation of Affordable Housing, is building an 84-apartment complex in the city’s Sugar Hill Arts District in nearby Midtown. A significant number of the apartments will be deemed affordable. With the city of Detroit as the conduit that sought development proposals, when completed, the complex will also include a 300-space parking garage, green alleyways, and vibrant commercial and retail spaces. For decades, beginning in the early 1900s, the Sugar Hill Arts District was home to African American-owned jazz clubs and other business and cultural establishments.
Develop Detroit, a brainchild of Boston-based Housing Partnership Network, is also developing 175 housing units in the Eastern Market Gateway, which will include some commercial structures. When completed, the Eastern Market Gateway will be a unique walkable district, connecting key points between the Central Business District, Lafayette Park, and Eastern Market.
For both the Sugar Hill Arts District and Eastern Market projects, international and award-winning architect, Phil Freelon, serves as principal and project design lead. Freelon is well-known for his architectural work with the relatively new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the National Center for Civil Rights in Atlanta, and the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco. He is also the architectural lead for the Motown Museum’s massive expansion project in Detroit.
Mays, who is also a Detroit Public Schools Community District board member, has visions of implementing innovative projects to renovate some of the vacant school buildings that stand in disarray in neighborhoods across the city.
“There are many renovation opportunities with abandoned schools,” explained Mays, who estimates that the school district owns about 20 vacant schools. “I’m pushing the district to find ways that we can be better partners in doing something positive with vacant schools. Schools are community anchors, and we need to be committed to how we deal with schools when they close. I’ve seen some examples of how closed schools were turned into lofts, so we are looking into a lot of possibilities.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree, JD, and MBA from the University of Michigan, Mays, a native Detroiter, could live and work anywhere in the United States. She once lived in New York, where she worked as a Wall Street investment banker for one of the world’s largest banks. Five years ago, however, Mays returned to Detroit.
“I love Detroit, because there’s something very special about our city, “said Mays. “Now, Detroit has such an opportunity to lead the national conversation and movement of developing affordable housing the right way. There are so many places that got it wrong, like Harlem, D.C. and Brooklyn. Detroit has this amazing opportunity to get it right.”
Asked about her role in helping Detroit “get it right.”
“I’ve never been interested in taking more out of the world, than putting in,” explained Mays. “I feel better about who I am, more authentic, when I add to our communities, versus extracting. I love that now I can problem solve in a really permanent way. I love that I can build and renovate housing for people to develop their lives, and develop their stories in Detroit.”