My wife and I talk a lot lately about what to do with our house.
We just passed our 13th anniversary of buying our first home here in Ferndale. We’ve had two children in that time. Our home is, at long last, no longer under water, and we think we could probably turn a decent profit from selling it.
Like anyone else, we’d like to upgrade to something a bit nicer. We want to stay in Ferndale. But we’re not sure we can afford to buy a home here anymore.
Ferndale is in the midst of an incredible development boom, with a major residential loft apartment rising on Nine Mile, construction beginning soon on a massive mixed-use parking structure called “the dot,” two major new residential developments under construction and the shuttered Como’s, no doubt one of the most prime commercial properties in the entire region, currently on the market for $4 million.
Other major residential loft projects are either pending or soon to break ground. And the neighborhoods are dotted with new infill construction, tear-downs being replaced by new homes and major home renovation projects.
Density is increasing. The Daily Tribune reported recently that there are 301 residential units under construction right now in Ferndale, with the number reaching 856 when you add in approved projects and others in the discussion phase. A member of the city’s planning commission told me recently that the Como’s site, at Nine Mile and Woodward, could rise to six or eight stories tall under permitted zoning and given the high price tag.
Generally speaking, these are all good things. The city, still battered from the housing collapse and limited from recouping much of the resulting drop in property tax collection, will welcome the bump in tax revenue. It means more money to pay for things like roads, parks and other services that benefit residents and visitors. The school district will absorb new students. Downtown businesses will soon find many new neighbors and potential customers.
But the changes are the talk of the town, and they’re clearly causing concern.
People here cherish the very things that make Ferndale stand out from the sprawling sea of sameness around Detroit: its walkability, a downtown filled with quirky small businesses, its progressive politics and its status as a refuge for artists, musicians and the LGBTQ crowd. And they’re scared some of those very things could now be at risk as rents and home prices climb and corners of town get a glossy new sheen.
I was speaking with someone I know recently who said she needs to move out of her house, partly to find more room for her growing art business. Yet she can’t afford anything in Ferndale, where she’s lived for more than 20 years, and it clearly causes her anguish. “I went to the opening night of the WAB,” which opened in 1997, she said.
The dreaded “G” word is on everybody’s lips.
“Ferndale is not the blue-collar town it was anymore”
Ferndale, of course, has technically been “gentrifying” for decades, ever since Detroit’s gay scene started fleeing crime and violence in Palmer Park during the ’80s. I first visited Ferndale in the early ’90s, when it was a sad and dreary place. West Nine Mile Road through downtown was four lanes wide, and most businesses made customers enter through the back doors, from the parking lot. When my wife and I hunted for homes over several weekends all those years ago, we saw a city caught between its modest blue-collar past and the progressive, artsy and in-demand locale it is now. We saw a lot of really dowdy, outdated homes; far more potential than finished product.
“Ferndale is not the blue-collar town it was anymore,” a fellow parent who graduated from Ferndale High in the early ’80s told me recently.
Gentrification is arguably one of the defining economic issues of our time, and it’s by no means confined to our beloved little burg. My hometown of Ann Arbor is a textbook example, with a skyline that has been reshaped almost beyond my recognition and real estate values that would be well out of my reach today. It’s most definitely spreading in Detroit. In a time of greater economic equality, increasing density by building up might not matter as much as it does in modern-day America, with its increasingly stark income disparities and shrinking middle class.
In some respects, Ferndale is becoming a victim of its own success. But it’s demonstrating what I have long been saying: There is huge, pent-up demand in Detroit for more urban amenities like downtowns, density and walkability and even, probably, support for better transit options.
City leaders are well aware of the challenges.
“Affordable is part of it. We want to make sure that people at all price points can still remain here,” Mayor Dave Coulter told me at his state of the city address recently.
He talked about various strategies the city is implementing, from affordable-housing requirements for developers who use tax incentives to promoting a diversity of housing styles, including for seniors, to accommodate different demographics. Coulter also said the city recently adopted something called “form-based code,” which he said goes beyond simple permitted uses to consider factors like architecture, structural elements and how proposed developments fit with the city’s look, feel and multi-modal approach to various transportation options.
How much the city can control the rising tide of interest in Ferndale remains to be seen.
“We’re not trying to be somebody else, we’re just trying to be a better version of ourselves,” Coulter said.