Impact of ‘National Treasure’ status for Jefferson-Chalmers to take a while

September 15, 2016

Ray Cronk is a realist when it comes to improvements in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood, where he owns a record store and a coffee shop.

It will take time “before this becomes a walkable, destination neighborhood,” he said, even with Jefferson-Chalmers being named a National Treasure by the private nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation this week.

That designation qualifies the neighborhood for the attention and resources of the nonprofit organization to preserve and improve its buildings, including help in qualifying for historic tax credits and turning them into cash for restoration, as well as small grants and expertise.

The impact won’t be immediate.

Jefferson-Chalmers is considered one of the few early 20th-century commercial districts that still survives in Detroit. Its mix of housing — from bungalows to three-story mansions — contributes to its potential to promote the city’s economic recovery. The neighborhood along East Jefferson Avenue near Grosse Pointe Park is a mix of occupied and vacant and blighted commercial buildings. It has benefited from city road improvements, which include a landscaped island and bike lanes. Neighboring residential streets range from vacant land to high-density older homes in varying states of repair.

“I sure as heck hope (the designation) has a positive impact, but it needs to fill out a little more,” said Cronk, who owns Hello Again Records and Coffee and (___). “I think it is an incredible distinction, but will (take time) before we see fruition of this recognition. There’s a music analogy: Certain artists are lauded for their talent, but they don’t sell a lot of records.”

Mary Lu Seidel, National Trust Chicago field director who also is project manager for Jefferson-Chalmers, said it will take three months or so for people driving or walking on East Jefferson to start noticing improvements, including the renovation of a former Kresge store, construction of a new Caribbean restaurant in an old bank building and the beginnings of a new roof on the historic Vanity Ballroom.

Credit for progress goes primarily to the long-term, ongoing efforts of Jefferson East Inc., the neighborhood’s business development organization.

“The National Treasure will allow the area to apply for small grants, but mostly it means its gets the National Trust’s time and talent regarding property reuse, historic preservation, national register requirements, and help with redevelopment and reuse based on other National Treasure projects,” Seidel said.

This is Michigan’s first National Treasure, and just one of 70 in the United States.

Jefferson-Chalmers was chosen, Seidel said, because it has good bones, a strong local partner in JEI and “is on the tipping point of becoming better or worse.”

The trust has singled out the Vanity Ballroom on East Jefferson and the vacant Guyton Elementary School on neighboring Phillip Street as ripe for restoration and reuse. They may qualify for historic tax credits, and help with tax-credit financing from the National Trust’s subsidiary, the National Trust Community Investment Corp. These can be coupled with additional tax credits, Seidel said.

The first idea for the Guyton school reuse is some type of housing. “In Chicago, we are turning public schools into housing. People think it’s a good idea to make these schools community centers, but those don’t make money. Senior or family housing or micro-apartments might be a better use,” she said.

The next step, according to Seidel and Josh Elling, executive director of JEI, is obtaining community feedback on what is preferred for the neighborhood. A Sept. 17 event called Jazzin’ on the River, an annual outdoor jazz festival at A.B. Ford Park, will be a forum for community ideas and concerns.

“And Josh and I will be meeting to talk about next steps,” Seidel said.

Other key properties for preservation on East Jefferson are a vacant bank building and an industrial building near Alter Road. “Those will have a visual impact for the neighborhood,” Seidel added.

Seidel does not anticipate large grants for the area now. “The National Treasure designation provides national visibility, but doesn’t guarantee anything,” she said.

So far, the Vanity has received $25,000 from the National Trust to conduct an environmental assessment and a structural study. Elling said the building, though badly deteriorated, is structurally sound but needs a roof, expected to cost $500,000 to $1 million. He thinks the building’s sentimentality with older residents (some of whom met their spouses there) could attract funding.

He said Detroit City Council approved transfer of the Vanity to JEI in July. Part of the transfer conditions included calling on local residents to help decide an appropriate use for the building. The goal is for the Art Deco-style ballroom to have a second life that celebrates a storied past that includes performances by entertainers such as Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and the Stooges.

Before getting the designation, Seidel met extensively with Detroit partners and stakeholders such as JEI, the city of Detroit, Detroit Future City, the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and Preservation Detroit starting in February 2015 to determine the potential and impact of Jefferson-Chalmers and other Detroit neighborhoods being named a National Treasure.

Click here to read the full article in Crain’s Detroit Business.