Detroit developer says trees are central to Core City projects, embracing the space
When developer Philip Kafka first began buying property along Grand River Avenue near Detroit’s Core City neighborhood about a decade ago, what is now called Core City Park was a litter-filled parking lot surrounded mostly by abandoned buildings. As soon as Kafka’s team began digging, they discovered an old, ruined fireplace that had once been here. An engraved stone slab now located nearby has the year ‘1893’ engraved on it. Today, the 8,000-square-foot garden contains benches, tables, chairs, a fire pit, sculptures and — most importantly, according to Kafka — about 100 trees.
“I would say this is the most exciting project for me, and the one I am most proud of,” he says. Metro Times Over coffee on a recent sunny afternoon. “The garden is really the nucleus of this commercial development.”
Kafka’s developments through his company Prince Concepts include the neighboring Argentine restaurant Barda (formerly Magnet) and Ocher Bakery. Kafka’s office is upstairs, as is Lafayette American agency, ad store, Toby Barlow, while florist Bloomscape is just around the corner. Coming soon are the offices of Gunner and Hobbes, two Detroit-based animation studios, as well as a market next to Ocher. Across the street is TrueNorth, a village-like community of nine Quonset huts, or massive prefabricated, arched metal structures. To the south is Caterpillar, a one-eight-unit building in a similar style surrounded by log arcades, more trees, and a winding path—one day, Kafka says, the path will run through all his projects in the area, inviting people to. roam through them. Projects helped Prince Concepts get a title Midwest Best Practices developer by Al Mohandes Newspaper.
When he first moved in, Kafka says, there were only five inhabited homes in the area, and the buildings around Core City Park were largely deserted. “All of these buildings were empty and deserted in need of renovation, and we had a neighborhood where the five people who were here were excited about whatever we were going to do,” he says. “This is rare for me and for development.” He says creating an overall design was key. “Even people who go to the soup kitchen here next door might not come to Usher’s bakery and drink $3 coffee a day, but they definitely sit on the benches while waiting for the bus,” he says.
Kafka says that the garden is an example of how “development emerges, not descends.” “You don’t go somewhere with an idea of what you want to build, you just impose it on somewhere,” he says. “You really have to spend a lot of time understanding it.”
Kafka is a stranger to Detroit, or at least he once was. Originally from Texas, he had a career in advertising in New York City, where he says he was drawn to public spaces. “That’s what makes New York so interesting, because if you’re not in your apartment, you’re always in a public place,” he says. “Here, you spend a lot of time in your car.”
Around 2012, Kafka began visiting Detroit. He says he visited the city more than a dozen times in a year, and by the end bought the building that would become Detroit’s trendy Takoi Restaurant.
“I was working, working, working, and starting to want to do more,” he says. “I came to Detroit, and I was just, I thought it was so much fun. … It was built as a city of two million people, and its population is a fraction of that. So you said to me, ‘Wow, that’s so unique.'” There is a lot of space here. ”
A few years later, he began placing billboards in New York City to promote the then-new restaurant (formerly known as Katoi), and also invited New Yorkers to try Detroit. One of the signs, using an image taken from the famous Diego Rivera murals, read, “Detroit: West Bushwick.” (At the time we were skeptical of the campaign, but damned: We’ve since learned of at least one person who saw a sign and decided to move to Motor City.)
“All I can say for advertising is that if you do a good ad campaign, you do a good billboard, and it can get people home, but it won’t sell them the product,” Kafka says. “I knew the billboard was going to bring people to Detroit, but a certain kind of person would be drawn to it. The billboards wouldn’t change who would be interested in that place, but maybe if he sent 10 intrigued people here, one of them would stay.”
As he navigated the developments, Kafka spoke in Spanish to Caterpillar construction workers, and then in American Sign Language to a man walking down the street. Near one of the houses formerly in the building, Kafka picks up a discarded bottle of beer while saying hello to a neighbor seated on his balcony.
“how are you?” Asked. When the neighbor asks him in turn, Kafka says, “You know what it is, every day is a gift from God – some are more beautiful than others.”
Kafka says he has more developments on the way, including a complex of close to 15 duplex apartments, as well as a car park that will be stocked with more trees.
“It’s not the most profitable idea, but if you really believe in the future, you plant trees, because that’s what I really believe in — planting trees communicates belief in the future,” he says. “I can’t wait. Like, imagine this park in 10 years when these trees get older. It’s going to be awesome.”