Arts & Culture, City Transformation, Conservation, History, neighborhood growth, Neighborhoods

Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers District named a National Treasure for historic preservation efforts

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You hear it all the time: Detroit’s downtown is thriving, but the neighborhoods have been neglected in that progress. Here’s an example of how that couldn’t be more wrong.

In an announcement that shows how the focus on Detroit’s neighborhoods is taking hold in real and significant ways, the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with Jefferson East Inc. and other stakeholders announced Wednesday that the Jefferson-Chalmers District has received the prestigious designation of National Treasure.

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David J. Brown, executive vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Here’s what’s exciting about this announcement: It is the first project under the National Trust’s new ReUrbanism initiative, which means it will receive special consideration and attention. The ReUrbanism puts preservation in step with residential needs as a way to create health, wealth and community. In other words: People + Preservation = Economic Growth for Detroit’s Neighborhoods.

Or, as Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s Nancy Finegood said: “We’ve come a long way, baby” in terms of how we see Detroit’s structures. Ruin porn? Begone. National Treasures? YES. YES. YES.

It also is the first National Treasure designation within Michigan and Detroit. And it is a major boon for a neighborhood/district that is on the tipping point toward significant investment, renovation and restoration.

The National Trust will work with city officials including Mayor Mike Duggan, residents and businesses such as Coffee & [___] as well as others to boost capacity, find the best reuse strategies and rehab the district’s many assets. Two programs will come into play: The National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab’s Partnership for Building Reuse and its Main Street Center’s Refresh pilot, a program to test new strategies for successful main streets.

Wednesday’s announcement came along with news from Jefferson East Inc. of significant note: It is in the midst of welcoming another new apartment renovation, the addition of Norma G’s Caribbean restaurant and is beginning the rehabilitation of the celebrated Vanity Ballroom along Jefferson, one of the city’s most beloved landmarks.

See that big cover photo for this blog post? That’s the before. Imagine the after! Vanity Ballroom was a beauty. See Historic Detroit’s write-up for more. In addition, the National Main Street Center awarded a $25,000 grant to Jefferson East Inc. for its work on the Vanity Ballroom. An icon will be reborn.

Josh Elling, Executive Director for Jefferson East Inc.

Josh Elling, Executive Director for Jefferson East Inc.

“Jefferson-Chalmers truly is a national treasure,” said Josh Elling, executive director for Jefferson East Inc. During his tenure, Elling has secured over $40 million in funding for commercial redevelopment projects, increased the organization’s budget from $140,000 to more than $1 million, expanded the organization’s programmatic footprint and secured the largest grants in the organization’s history.

With this project – and many others that are significant to both downtown and the neighborhoods – Detroit is the kind of place where “people from all different sectors and organizations and communities and walks of life are coming together to solve problems and take action,” said Amy Elliott Bragg, President of Preservation Detroit.

“Those of us who work in the city know that Detroit’s future depends on the success of its neighborhoods,” said Elliott Bragg. “A crucial element of this success is the preservation of the city’s built environment, and the preservation of the stories these neighborhoods have told for generations. We have before us an amazing opportunity to demonstrate how preservation can be the backbone of vibrant, healthy communities across the country.”

According to Jefferson East Inc., Jefferson-Chalmers boasts more than 160 acres of riverfront parks, free boat launches, fishing access and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Housing ranges from three-story mansions to modest ranch homes, while charming details like 100-year old brick streets remain today. The burgeoning neighborhood has recently received acclaim for innovative economic development strategies, historic apartment renovations and successful pop-up businesses along East Jefferson Avenue.

J 6David J. Brown, executive vice president and chief preservation officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, noted that this National Treasure designation will boost this growing district and teach the rest of the country how to make preservation efforts like this work.

“We choose these Treasures very carefully, based on their importance to the communities in which they reside, the diverse stories they tell about our American past, and the ways we can work to make a positive difference in protecting them and keeping them thriving,” Brown said.

Brown noted that the National Trust and Detroit’s partners here are looking for more companies to come in and see the potential that they see.

“(Jefferson-Chalmers) has all pieces in place” to fulfill its full potential and be a strong, healthy and vibrant destination for its residents and businesses, said Brown, who supervises the Trust’s National Treasure campaigns which help protect some of the country’s most significant and threatened historic places.

He believes (as we all do) that Detroit, specifically Jefferson-Chalmers, has a great foundation.

“Despite its recent economic challenges, Jefferson-Chalmers’ bones – its historic buildings and places – remain strong and resilient,” Brown said. “Based on our research and experience both here in Detroit and around the country, we strongly believe that Jefferson-Chalmers’ past is the key to unlocking a more dynamic future. Through creative reuse and rehabilitation, this neighborhood’s older and historic buildings are well-positioned to evolve into vibrant assets that spur revitalization and meet the community’s 21st century needs.”

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