Sue Mosey: Slow and steady approach revitalizes Midtown

Posted on January 17, 2012

As an urban planning student at Wayne State University, Susan Mosey could see tremendous potential in the neighborhood that would become Midtown.

But she had no idea she’d one day become “Mayor of Midtown.”

It took more than 20 years to reach a tipping point in revitalizing the key Detroit neighborhood.

But Mosey’s slow and steady approach to community development has helped to attract tens of millions of dollars in investment, people and businesses back to Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood.

Her work reached a tipping point when Whole Foods Market Inc. signed on to bring its first Detroit store to Midtown last year. But the neighborhood is still a work in progress, Mosey said.

“You have to put things in perspective — everything is not going to happen in a short time period, but as long as you’re moving forward … the neighborhood improves.”

The work requires patience and an aggressive approach in seeking projects, collaborators and resources, as well as an integrated vision, Mosey said.

“And I think you need to celebrate the good projects along the way with your partners and neighbors.”

Rebranding the neighborhood

The progress in Midtown didn’t happen overnight. It’s been an evolution over the past 20-plus years that Mosey has led community development there.

“There’s not enough funding for any neighborhood to have a quick turnaround in a difficult, disinvested city,” Mosey said.

Under her direction, University Cultural Center Association, a predecessor organization to Midtown Detroit Inc., did a lot of things early on to set the stage for community development.

That included forging relationships with developers, businesses and funders, among others, and rebranding the area that includes a number of smaller neighborhoods, including the ill-reputed, seedy Cass Corridor, as “Midtown” 12 years ago, with help from Detroit-based Lovio George Communications and Design

Those things helped, but there have been obstacles, Mosey said.

Financing real estate development is always a major challenge in Detroit, and there is some percentage of property owners who are just not motivated to improve property, don’t manage it well or are not motivated to sell.

“There’s missed opportunities with that,” Mosey said. “But we have a lot less of that today than we did when I started here.”

Before Mosey launched community development in Midtown, there wasn’t much of it happening there.

She joined UCCA in 1987 as planning director after four years as director of the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority and working on both residential and commercial revitalization in Southwest Detroit in the 1970s for the Michigan Avenue Community Organization.

In 1990, she took the reins of UCCA as executive director.

It would be another eight or nine years before UCCA rebranded the area it was working in as Midtown to help people identify with the neighborhood and to give them a frame of reference.

“There are still some hardcore people who live in the neighborhood, who said we shouldn’t have changed it,” Mosey said. “But the reality is Midtown is a much larger area than Cass ever was.”

The area designated as Midtown is bounded by Euclid Avenue to the north, M-10 to the west and I-75 to the east and south.

Still, Mosey and Midtown Detroit encourage the various neighborhoods, including Cass Corridor, Art Center and Brush Park, to continue to use their neighborhood identities, she said.

Most major cities have a midtown, and the brand aptly described the location of the larger neighborhood, so it stuck. But rebranding by itself won’t bring a neighborhood back, she said.

If it’s not done in concert with work to improve the physical environment through housing stabilization and upgrades and bringing in new commercial services, “it doesn’t really work,” Mosey said.

Visible investment in the neighborhood also has helped spur additional progress.

“When you drive the neighborhood, you see new businesses, construction, things happening here,” Mosey said. “That’s probably the most important thing for anyone looking at investment opportunities.”

Mosey spends much of her time talking to developers, small-business owners, institutions and funders to keep them abreast of the development happening there and to encourage them to rally around the neighborhood and participate in its development.

She introduces people to the neighborhood, helps others find residences or locations and funding sources for developments there, and continuously educates people on future plans for Midtown.

Funders see area’s potential

Hudson-Webber Foundation, which has supported UCCA/Midtown Detroit for more than 30 years, and others have seen the neighborhood’s potential. The Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan,Kresge Foundation and Masco Corp. Foundation began supporting it about a decade ago and the New York-based Ford Foundation three years ago, Mosey said.

The Michigan State Housing Development Authority also has provided significant support, she said, as have Skillman Foundation, Invest Detroit, Detroit Development Fund, NCB Capital Impact, Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund and others.

The merger of UCCA and New Center Council last year focused more attention and enhanced investment in the neighborhood, such as $22 million in loans, program-related investments and grants from local and national funders through the New York-based Living Cities.

Midtown Detroit led development of the neighborhood’s application for the funding and has taken over administration of the funds, which are meant to bring businesses back to the Woodward Corridor.

Such investment is helping to propel more development, Mosey said.

Funders and public entities recognize Woodward Avenue as a key corridor because of its assets, which include Wayne State University, TechTown, Henry Ford Health System and Detroit Medical Center, Mosey said.

“You’ve got some real opportunities here for job growth, innovation, (and) residential growth as more and more people want to live closer to where they work.”

Mosey has not only been working to attract new development to Midtown, she’s protected the area from further decline over the past 20 years, said Katy Locker, vice president of programs for Hudson-Webber.

“There were periods of time when we could have lost historic buildings, where businesses that have long served Midtown could have left,” Locker said. “(Mosey) has worked quietly to keep those here.”

Mosey also makes sure neighboring businesses and property owners are informed and comfortable with new developments, and where possible, she finds a partner for every project, Locker said.

“I think that’s the heart of community and economic development: that one person and organization can’t do it (all) and sustain it.

“An organization that works with partners and ensures shared vision has a much better chance of sustainable success.”

Still a long way to go

Whole Foods’ decision to bring its first Detroit grocery store to Midtown was a tipping point for the neighborhood, Mosey said. It will bring an amenity that will appeal to the new residents moving into the city through the “Live Midtown” and “Live Downtown” programs that Mosey and Midtown Detroit are administering for the anchor employers, Kresge, Hudson-Webber and MSHDA.

But there are many amenities that are still missing, such as green space, Mosey said. And the neighborhood needs more residential to keep pace with demand, given that 95 percent of available housing in the neighborhood has been taken.

The “Live Midtown” program alone has brought 254 new residents to the neighborhood, Mosey said.

“Our priority will always remain building housing, especially when we’re deploying these residential incentive programs,” she said. “We need to have the product for all the people considering moving here.”

The Auburn LLC, a mixed-use development now under construction, will help address the immediate need for housing and small-business storefronts.

Also on tap are projects including Midtown Detroit’s redevelopment of the former Agave Restaurant space on Woodward into a new restaurant with housing on the second floor, a coffee/wine bar with an outdoor patio at the corner of Woodward and Alexandrine Street in collaboration with Great Lakes Roasting Coffee Co., and the rehab of the former Sassy Cat, a former pornographic theater, into a reputable theater space.

When will Midtown once again be considered a fully revitalized neighborhood?

When property values rise, more people are walking around Midtown and there are many flourishing small businesses, Mosey said.

“We have some of that, but clearly we have a long ways to go in all of those areas.”

But the excitement people are conveying about what’s happening in Midtown is proof the neighborhood is on its way back, she said.

“I think that tells you the brand is helping people to imagine a corridor that is really becoming more vital and offers more opportunities to work, live and recreate here.”

Sherrie Welch, Crain’s Detroit