Dearborn celebrates at The Center construction of City Hall Artspace Lofts- Examiner

by Gary Thompson

A slide of another celebration of another Artspace project is shown at the April 21 party and reception for the City Hall Artspace Lofts project.

A “Ground Thaw” celebration drew a crowd to the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center‘s Studio A Tuesday evening, as Artspace Dearborn showcased its future City Hall Artspace Lofts project.

Mayor John B. O'Reilly Jr. talks about the origin of the City Hall Artspace Lofts project, and its progress at Tuesday's party and reception in Studio A.
Photo by Gary Thompson

Those in attendance could see renderings of the future renovation of the former Dearborn City Hall on the corner of Schaefer and Michigan Avenue, as well as slides of previous projects by Artspace. At a reception serviced by Park Place Caterers and with background music provided by a band, several speakers connected with the project addressed the background on how the project came about, and on the progress of construction towards its future completion.

Heidi Kurtze, vice president of property development for Artspace, said she had been in Minneapolis for more than two decades, but that this community was her home, “and I am happy to come and be able to participate in Artspace’s first project in Michigan.” She said that out of Artspace’s current 38 projects, this will be unique as the first city hall among these projects.

Kurtze added that she felt still part of the community of “private and creative people and businesses all in one place” which form the corridor of Dearborn‘s retail shops and Michigan Avenue. After acknowledging her Artspace colleagues and the assistance of countless city staff on the City Hall Artspace Lofts project (such as by the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority‘s executive director, staff and board; and by the city’s economic and community development director, sustainability coordinator, and law department corporation counsel‘s “literally running around on Christmas Eve, delivering documents to make sure this project closed before the end of the year”), Kurtze invited the mayor to the podium.

Mayor John B. O’Reilly Jr. recalled his father went to work in his office at Dearborn City Hall in 1953, and he himself had gone there to get money from his father and eventually work part-time himself, “so I have as much affection for that building as anybody can, and I can’t think of a better future use.”

During the recession in 2009, he said, the city had been strategizing on all the things Dearborn could do to generate new interest and activity. O’Reilly had been familiar with Artspace’s projects, which he said were around 31 in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and in New York, so he called Artspace and asked them if they were considering projects in Michigan. When they answered Artspace was doing no projects in the Detroit metropolitan area, the mayor said he asked if they would consider Dearborn, and Artspace responded with a “Yes” and sent a statement showing the seven steps for a project.

One step was to do fund-raising, O’Reilly said, and another step laid out in the document was to identify properties and might be converted to a project (even if they were not currently on the market). A couple of years ago, O’Reilly had met not only with Artspace, but also interviewed the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul and some of the residents of that area’s properties. Every response was resounding confirmation of the importance of the Artspace projects, O’Reilly said, both mayors agreeing that their communities’ Artspace projects had transformed underperforming neighborhoods into vital hubs of economic energy.

Surface transit had been rerouted to run in front of an Artspace project (when it went in, the mayor said, it drew so much activity that the farm market was rebuilt into a permanent farm market) because of activity and investment which had not materialized there previously. The founding city of Artspace had experienced many projects, “and they couldn’t say enough,” so the city of Dearborn looked at doing the required seven steps one by one, including working through 21 possible sites to reduce them to a final five, “and then all of a sudden, something really crazy happened.”

A property just a little bit to the west from the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center went through bankruptcy, he said, and its sale “didn’t look like it was moving very well.

“So I said, I remember coming back and saying, you know, if we were willing to sell City Hall, what would you think about that?” O’Reilly said. “Their answer—’We were dying for that, but we didn’t think it would be available!’ so it was kismet.

“We got an opportunity to get a property at a ridiculously low price that was much more cost-effective, and met the needs of our customers better, and at the same time, Artspace was able to get a really unique property,” he said.

All the asbestos has been stripped out, all the mechanical has been stripped out, the parking deck “that we would have had to tear down or rebuild” is gone, and the framing is being put in. The transformation is going to go on inside, O’Reilly said, while the outside would remain City Hall. Since everyone will always consider it City Hall, he said, the building the city moved to will be known as the Dearborn Administrative Center.

“All this stuff is happening where it’s really moving along at great pace, and we just couldn’t be more thrilled with the progress that’s being made, and the process itself,” O’Reilly said. “It’s really amazing to see it come this far.”

During the visits to Artspace properties to evaluate their past projects, O’Reilly noted, one of them was a former maple syrup industrial building, so when Artspace started work on the building, it started dripping from the walls. The mayor wondered what was going to happen when Artspace started work on Dearborn City Hall, and the construction work ended up discovering the police department’s former shooting range on the fourth floor.

While they now try to figure out how to deal with the debris of hard carbon from that, O’Reilly said, it is curious that all this was found “way off mark from” where they knew the police department’s target had been.

“So either we had some pretty poor marksmen, or something else explains it,” he said as the audience laughed.

The advantage of the city’s new administrative site, he said, was that the layout allowed every office in City Hall to move in along with CDTV and the Human Resources Department, and still leaving about 25,000 square feet unused. O’Reilly insisted that people doing business with the city are finding customer service to be much better, and the city was saving $450,000 yearly in budget overhead costs.

The concluding speaker, Emmajean Woodyard, was credited by Kurtze with introducing Artspace to community partners in the project, helping with the financing, and thinking through how to make the project work as a “creative, dynamic space.”

She had long hoped that Dearborn could get something like an Artspace project, Woodyard said, visiting all 27 prospective properties before the project settled on City Hall.

“But when City Hall came up, it’s perfect, especially since it’s such an iconic building, and we had all the assurances that the exterior be kept pure as we know it,” Woodyard said. “So it’s always going to be City Hall building, but now Artspace.”

The Dearborn Community Fund is involved in the project, she said, because it meets the fund’s mission “in bringing a new dynamic to the city.” The city is fortunate to have The Henry Ford, and have many other cultural institutions and resources, Woodyard said, “and they all stand to benefit from the Artspace project.”

While she has always held firmly to the position that arts and culture are important to economic development, Woodyard said despite constant talk to that effect by those in her field “for years and years…and everybody would say, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But then Artserve Michigan (now Creative Many) teamed with the Pew Cultural Data Project to produce reports and numbers on the role culture plays in economic development.

The Pew Cultural Data Project verified; she said; the economic impact of the creative sector, and of communities offering a variety of arts and cultural opportunites; on wages paid, numbers of jobs and businesses functioning, and growth in tourism and numbers of tourists. A steady increase in economic impact and continued growth of Michigan’s creative sector has been shown by Pew’s annual reports, according to Woodyard, with Wayne County being No. 2 of five top counties in the state with more than 1,100 arts-related businesses, more than 4,000 arts-related employees, and more than $808 million in wages paid to the creative sector.

“With the Artspace project, Dearborn will be in position to benefit from and contribute to this growth,” Woodyard said. “Not to mention, that we will be the first in Michigan to have an Artspace project.

“The Fund is pleased to be a supporting partner with the city, East Downtown Dearborn Development Authority, and Artspace in bringing this project to our community. There’s no doubt it fits the Fund’s mission to enhance and maintain Dearborn as a vibrant community, as we move forward” she said.

There were a number of parties involved in funding the $17-million development, Kurtze said, from funding Artspace’s initial visit to construction financing and long-term permanent financing and operating costs. She recognized the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MISHDA) for getting tax credits, A & V Steel, Bank of America for construction permanent financing and tax credit investment, Illinois Facilities Fund (IFF) for the CDFI and relief for critical bridge funding for the project, as well as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Michigan Council For Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, the Ford Motor Co. Fund and the Kresge Foundation.

The development team for the project is made up of project designers Neumann/Smith, Monahan Construction (oversight over construction), Ghafari Engineers, JBC Construction, Levine Law Group and property manager KMG Prestige.

The project should be completed later this year, Kurtze announced, with the certificate of occupancy looked for by December. The completed project will house 53 artists and their families, she said, and the concourse building will house creative businesses (“and incubator space for all kinds of startup businesses and creative individuals”).

Existing events such as “Jazz on the Avenue” (scheduled 7-9 p.m. Wednesdays between the July 8 Alexander Zonjic & Friends and August 12 Alexander Zonjic’s All Stars Jam) and “12 On 12” will continue with completion of the project, Kurtze said.

“Can you imagine what Jazz on the Avenue will be like with 53 artists living, and hopefully sharing their work, at growing that wonderful vision you have for this team?” she said.

Community partners in the project, besides some of the artists displaying their work around Studio A that evening; Kurtze added; were Green Brain Comics, Glass Academy, the Dearborn Public Schools district art teacher leader and Michael Berry Career Center art/design teacher, Arab American National Museum, and ACCESS Growth Center.