As I cross the Ambassador Bridge from Canada, the Detroit skyline unfolds to my right. Past downtown’s tight cluster of 19th- and 20th-century skyscrapers, the Renaissance Center asserts a dramatic and slightly isolated presence. The knot of gleaming tubular forms designed by John Portman features a commanding 73-storey tower at its centre; it’s the tallest building in the city and in the state of Michigan. A couple of streets to the north, SHoP Architects’ ongoing redevelopment of the former Hudson’s Department Store site — owned by billionaire Dan Gilbert — will rise to nearly the same majestic height. I’m driving past it.
Just northwest of downtown, the evolving Core City is an entirely different milieu. As in much of central Detroit, the urban fabric is a patchwork. Driving up 16th Street, I see houses, apartment buildings and handsome churches interspersed with stretches of grass and broken sidewalk where homes, businesses and schools once stood. Then, an elongated Quonset hut appears; stretching out in front of the 59-metre span of shimmering steel is a wooden deck and a rich woodland landscape. Another block up, eight smaller Quonset huts are nestled among trees and grasses. I leave the car at the corner where 16th Street meets Grand River and Warren avenues, on a triangular lot; the parking spots are nearly swallowed up by a lush, permeable landscape of junipers, maples, sumacs and native flowers.
Across the street, at Cafe Prince, I meet Philip Kafka, the developer behind the Quonset huts, the parking lot and much of the surrounding neighbourhood — including the coffee shop where we drink espresso and eat raw carrots. An erstwhile professional tennis player turned New York City billboard entrepreneur, Kafka is an unconventional local real estate mogul. His company, Prince Concepts, now owns some seven contiguous hectares of land in Core City. It’s an evolving urban landscape of creative mixed-use typologies, contextually sensitive adaptive re-use projects, and ample and attractive green spaces, all with an emphasis on social interaction — and inventive design.
Kafka’s journey started just over a decade ago. “I first visited Detroit towards the end of 2012,” he tells me. The following year, he returned more or less every month. “I’d come for a weekend, rent a car and drive the entire city. I’d drive and drive, just taking it in. I really wanted to know and understand Detroit before I did anything.” But as Kafka explored the city, its decades-long fiscal and demographic crisis deepened. From a mid-century peak of almost two million residents, white flight, deindustrialization and the collapse of American auto manufacturing fuelled a rapid exodus. By 2020, the population had fallen to just under 640,000. Amplified by suburbanization and the destructive, racist legacies of redlining, segregation and freeway infrastructure, the city steadily grew smaller — and poorer. In 2013, Detroit declared bankruptcy, its eroding tax base reflected in a dilapidated urban landscape.
In the meantime, Kafka kept driving. “Grand River and Warren was this intersection I kept ending up at, not intentionally.” Located near downtown, Core City was substantially hollowed out by the urban exodus. Unlike most of central Detroit, however, the area was not designated a federal Opportunity Zone (a program offering tax advantages to spur investment in lower-income communities), though many of its commercial buildings and homes were either razed or sitting empty.
“There were four operational houses in the area when I first arrived,” says Kafka, “all owned and occupied by Detroit ‘old timers,’ the type of people that make Detroit Detroit. They were all north of 75 years old, all Black, all proud and all dedicated to the homes they’d owned since the 1960s. I greeted these residents in the same manner: ‘Hi, I’m Philip Kafka, I bought some property here that I will be developing. Some housing, some commerce. I work for you. You’ve owned stock in this neighbourhood for a long time, and everything that I do will increase the value of your stock.’” It didn’t take him long.
After converting a former garage into a restaurant in the city’s Corktown district in 2016, Kafka embarked on his first Core City project: a cluster of eight live–work Quonset huts containing 10 rental units, dubbed True North, which was designed by EC3’s Edwin Chan and completed in 2017. Although Second World War–era military typologies offered Kafka a point of inspiration, the elegantly staggered, angular site plan produced a warm, convivial setting on the 2,300-square-metre parcel framed by 40 new trees.
Inside, the flexible, open living spaces take advantage of the generous domed ceilings afforded by the distinct semicylindrical architectural form. A simple material palette of plywood walls and translucent polycarbonate panels animates the interiors, which are bathed in changing light throughout the day. Organized around a central volume that houses the kitchen and bathroom — and is topped by a second-storey sleeping space — the layouts facilitate varied uses. Prince Concepts property manager Randall Pardy lives in one of the homes and has placed a small painting atelier, immersed in sunlight, at its centre.
Down the block, the “Caterpillar” building, designed by local architect and Undecorated founder Ishtiaq Rafiuddin and completed in 2021, adapts the Quonset hut into a more urban scale. The mixed-use volume comprises eight suites — two live–work spaces, including Undecorated’s own office, and six apartments — and, like True North, harnesses the simple efficiency of the semicylindrical steel form to create high-ceilinged, open interior spaces. Two rows of dormer windows welcome ample natural light and introduce passive ventilation to each suite, while simple plywood finishes and streamlined white tile bathrooms round out the generous interiors. Framing the whole of the 59-metre-long building, a broad wooden deck creates a sort of communal front porch, one that invites interactions between residents, visitors and workers.
Caterpillar is embraced by a woolly thicket of greenery designed by D.I.R.T. studio founder Julie Bargmann — a landscape architect renowned for drawing out the beauty and distinctive character of industrial and often toxic environments. To complement the street’s majestically gnarly old catalpa trees, Bargmann introduced a careful layering of new plantings, what she describes as a “misfit forest” made up of trees from a local nursery that was liquidating its castoffs at $25 a pop. The result is an eclectic landscape punctuated by the concrete pavers that link the deck to the sidewalk.
Throughout Core City, Bargmann’s pragmatic, humane and often playful ethos — and Kafka’s passion for greenery and public space — continues to shape an evolving terrain. Up the street, she recently worked with Prince’s in-house designer, Andrew Schwartz, to create a parking lot like no other in North America. Aptly dubbed PARK(ing), the 2,230-square-metre site combines a verdant landscape of 78 trees with a porous 28-spot lot that absorbs rainwater and mitigates the impacts of urban flooding; it mediates the reality of a car-dependent community within a welcoming, pedestrian-oriented environment.
The nerve centre of Kafka’s endeavours, however, is right across the street. The 743-square-metre Core City Park is a bona fide urban woodland under a leafy canopy of 87 trees, including flowering dogwoods and locusts. Salvaged bricks and concrete from the adjacent buildings — which were being redeveloped at the same time — have been ingeniously re-used here as the permeable paving for the plaza, its pedestrian paths and its oversized concrete benches.
Flanking Core City Park, Kafka’s adapted commercial properties include a mix of retail, hospitality and offices. At the east end of the park, Prince and Undecorated converted a defunct radiator shop into Magnet, an upscale bar and restaurant featuring vivid blue tile surfaces, a sunken bar and bold monochromatic lighting — all with a minimalist aesthetic rigour echoing that of the nearby residential interiors. (Following Magnet’s pandemic-induced closure, the space is now occupied by Argentinian restaurant Barda.)
At the west end of the park, the conjoined structures of The Pie and The Sawtooth (previously vacant commercial properties redeveloped by Prince and Undecorated in 2018 and 2019, respectively), feature new offices, including Prince’s own headquarters, that benefit from street-level amenities like Cafe Prince (which is operated by Kafka’s firm), a bagel shop, and a commercial kitchen and event space. On the north end of the park, another former industrial building, The Power Plant, has been converted into loft-style offices anchored by a local hub for popular language learning app Duolingo.
“I like to do adaptive re-use projects on buildings with no perceived architectural significance,” says Kafka. “I find a lot of character in them.” To that end, Prince Concepts’ most radical and inventive project to date is arguably 5000 Grand River Avenue. Rafiuddin and Bargmann adapted a long-vacant former grocery store, transforming the deep — and dark — 1,254-square-metre floor plate by carving out a trio of inner courtyards from the rusted-out roof, bringing sunlight and fresh air deep inside.
“It’s so easy to build new in an empty lot, but demolishing doesn’t sit right with us,” says Rafiuddin. “These spaces have identities that can’t be recreated with new architecture; they have an embodied energy. Why waste that?” Even the former concrete floors were re-used, returning to the tree-lined courtyards as pavers, tables and benches. Although initially envisioned as a mixed-use building integrating residential apartments, the whole structure was leased as an office space during construction.
The admirable work continues. On 15th Street, Prince and EC3 are building 24 new rental homes. Their footprints are carefully planned to preserve existing trees while balancing privacy and openness along a shared pedestrian laneway. Nearby, another pair of vacant industrial buildings are gradually being adapted for new uses, and Kafka, Bargmann and Schwartz are at work on a second major Core City park. So far, excavation has revealed a treasure trove of concrete below the soil. The team is using the blocks to build a public plaza at the heart of the green space. As Bargmann puts it, the aim is to “bring forth the landscape that’s already there.”
Over a decade after Kafka first drove through Detroit, his company has radically transformed one of the city’s low-income neighbourhoods. Has it been for the better? Viewed through Kafka’s stock market analogy, the answer is an emphatic yes: Prince Concepts is achieving the goal of gradually expanding the local population and tax base while bringing in new businesses and contributing to higher property values. What’s more, the parks and public spaces add healthy communal amenities — as well as vital stormwater protection — to Core City. And compared to the ubiquitous “5-over-1” residential buildings going up across America, including pockets of Detroit, Kafka’s projects are more stylish, sustainable, contextually attuned and spatially (and socially) generous, not to mention much greener.
Yet Kafka has also been criticized for gentrifying the area. For starters, the homes he builds are relatively high-end properties, where rents start at $1,350. As Aaron Mondry writes in Detour Detroit, Prince apartments are “not affordable to nearby residents or many Detroiters — the median family income in the census tract is estimated at $28,029.” The restaurants have faced similar scrutiny. Reviewing Core City’s swanky Magnet in Detroit Metro Times, Jane Slaughter wrote that “if any restaurant is more emblematic of this decade’s gentrification, I have yet to visit it.”
More recently, Cafe Prince has been at the heart of a similar controversy. After sharing an image of the shop’s menu on Twitter — including the trademark “nude, raw, chilled” carrot, which sells for $1.80, and the plate of “Two Brazil Nuts” offered at the same price — BridgeDetroit journalist Jena Brooker visited the joint and spoke to locals. Some Detroiters wondered why a high-concept coffee shop was introduced in lieu of a more practical retailer. As resident Bianca Garcia put it to Brooker, “Trying to be conceptual completely defeats the purpose of a food business, especially in an area that could use more options for groceries and dining.” By contrast, other patrons were quick to point out that they enjoy the space and nearby Core City Park, as well as the carrots.
For his part, Kafka hopes to build more affordable housing in the future. “I’m not good enough at what I do yet to make my housing affordable,” he tells me, explaining that relatively high prices offer an economic buffer that makes development viable. Speaking to Brooker in BridgeDetroit, he expresses a similar sentiment regarding a grocery store. “I don’t have the skills to do that right now, and eventually we will, but we’re not there right now.”
In a sense, the criticism is commensurate with the scale of Kafka’s ambitions. Transforming a neighbourhood is a complicated business — one that necessitates public scrutiny and collaboration. In most cities, economic competition and higher property values preclude a single developer from buying up so much contiguous urban land in the first place, which is probably for the better. And in a well-funded municipality, new parks and amenities are developed through a public process on public land. Detroit is different. The city’s urban condition led to a hollowed-out public sector, a reduced population and a shrinking tax base. In turn, this can foment a fetishistic strain of outsider thinking that views the city as empty or vacant, inviting a carte blanche approach where anything goes — as if there’s nothing there to gentrify.
According to some critics, Kafka is guilty of the latter. Yet he has also achieved something remarkable. In lieu of a rigid, site-based pro forma that maximizes profit and saleable floor area, Prince Concepts has transformed the neighbourhood through a holistic, if imperfect, vision. “I always try to figure out how to go in the direction that no other developer would take and make it work,” Kafka says. “That’s when I know I’m making a strictly site- and condition-specific decision.” He has also dissolved the boundary between design and development (he employs both a landscape designer and an architectural intern in his own firm) while contributing a distinctly adventurous and adaptable aesthetic sensibility.
Even Cafe Prince reflects this philosophy. The coffee shop doesn’t turn a profit, and wasn’t intended to, Kafka tells me. It’s an investment in the community of Core City. A financial logic still undergirds it, since Kafka owns so much of the adjacent land. But there is also an uncommon sensitivity to how culture and community create the conditions for urban development in the first place. Value, monetary or otherwise, isn’t situated within a building or site itself but in its context. “I believe that, with patience, the creation and consistent dedication to culture is followed by the creation of capital,” he says. It’s not the kind of thing most developers would say — or do. And if nothing else, I’ve never seen anyone plant so many damn trees.
As I prepare to cross back into Canada, my thoughts return to downtown Detroit, to Portman’s soaring Renaissance Center and the ongoing redevelopment of the Hudson’s Site. As its name suggests, the former mega-project was intended as a shot in the arm to the city’s economy. Originally conceived by Henry Ford II in 1970, the complex was an architectural moonshot, though it did not, ultimately, revive Detroit’s fortunes. On a recent visit, I found the place empty and austere, detached from its surroundings.
We’ve learned a lot since then. Over 40 years after the Renaissance Center’s unveiling, the Hudson’s redevelopment is now remaking the long-vacant site of the eponymous department store into another new downtown landmark. The mixed-use structure — incorporating retail, residential, hotel and office and a public outdoor space — is poised to be better-integrated into its urban surroundings. Developed by Rocket Mortgage founder Dan Gilbert and designed by New York’s SHoP Architects in partnership with Hamilton Anderson Associates — and controversially financed via a $60 million tax credit — it promises to be a local icon. It also follows well-established best practices for 21st-century urban development. In other words, I suspect it’s not what Philip Kafka would do.
“You know what I’d do,” he tells me, “I’d build a park.” Though the two developers work at vastly different urban scales — and are billions of dollars apart in wealth — Gilbert’s extensive downtown Detroit real estate portfolio offers a rare analogue to Core City. “Since he owns everything around it, I would’ve taken this historic, prime location and built a world-class public space,” says Kafka. That way, the value of the surrounding office properties would rise, he argues. As it is, the new office spaces may make neighbouring properties pale in comparison. It’s a very different way of getting to the bottom line.
Back across the Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit skyline and the city around it recedes into the background. On the highway to Toronto, I brace myself for a radically different urban context: pristine glass towers, astronomical property values and a swelling population, all in a global financial hub. In a crisis of seeming economic success, much of our urban development is constricted by the narrow pecuniary calculus of cramming as many shoebox units (and as few elevators) as possible into slender condo towers. For better and worse, the eccentricity and generosity of Core City belongs back across the border, on the other side of the Detroit River. Still, it’s on my mind the whole way home.
Combining mixed-use architectural ambition, greenery and generous public spaces, developer Philip Kafka is building a city within a park.