Interview

A Conversation with Sue Mosey – Executive Director, Midtown Detroit

She’s known as the “Mayor of Midtown” – a nickname earned after more than three decades at the helm of Midtown Detroit, Inc., a non-profit development firm focused on revitalizing the historic Detroit neighborhood. Since earning her degree in Urban Planning from local Wayne State University, Sue has been dedicated to renovating and reimagining the Midtown corridor. Her colleagues call her a “visionary who sees possibilities where others see none.” 

Midtown Detroit has raised millions for community revitalization projects, which have resulted in  new streetscapes and park development, an adaptive reuse boutique hotel, and the community’s first eco homes. Think Wood recently spoke with Mosey about her accomplished career in urban planning, and how she convinced Smith Group architects to design her Eco Homes pro bono.

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Think Wood: Hi Sue. You’ve dedicated your career to urban planning and development in Midtown. What sparked this passion and what continues to motivate/challenge you?

Sue Mosey: Being from Detroit, I’ve always felt like this neighborhood [Midtown] had a lot of potential. There was a university and some university-related housing, but beyond that, there was a lot of disinvestment and a lot of vacancy. Vacant land. Vacant buildings. For the first 20 years [our development work] focused on historic preservation. I’m a huge preservationist. And while we love preservation projects, we wanted to evolve and try new things with public spaces and new builds. We’ve managed to grow the population base in our district by about 22% since 2014. With the Eco Homes, we asked how we could create an appropriate urban infill in this area. We wanted to make sure the new homes nestled into the neighborhood and didn’t disrupt what was already there. There’s been a ton of work done, but there’s a ton of work left to do.

 

TW: Given Midtown’s urban density, what drove the decision for sustainable single-family home development vs. multi-family?

SM: We met with the neighborhood residents and they were clear they did not want a large-scale development that would change the character of their small district. This was the only street in the entire district that was zoned for single family housing, and we wanted something different and that would appeal to single-family homeowners. We asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to fit into that neighborhood and not negatively impact the character?’ We needed good architecture, and sustainable, quality materials that would result in valuable homes for the buyer. We also wanted to showcase our commitment to sustainability. At the end of the day, the neighborhood really supported this project, and that was important to us because we love the character of the area. So far, we have a mix of folks from the neighborhood that are stepping up from a small condo. We also have people from other cities that are moving to Detroit; empty empty-nesters from ’burbs. It’s a nice mix.

 

TW: You worked with SmithGroup on the design for the Eco Homes. How did this partnership come about considering SmithGroup doesn’t typically design single family homes?

SM: That’s actually a funny story. I received a planning award at the same event where Paul Urbanek [design director at SmithGroup] received an award for the design of his personal home. I looked at his photos and thought, ‘Hey, this house is really similar to the vision I have for my Eco Homes.’ I called him out of the blue and asked them to design the project. He politely explained that SmithGroup does not do this type of work, but I persisted and eventually he realized I wasn’t going away. Ultimately, [the firm] created an internal design competition and came up with five fantastic concepts for the Eco Homes. We loved them all and are very happy with the results.

 

TW: Tell us the story about the broader midtown revitalization efforts (“Selden Corridor Initiative”). What goals are you working to achieve?

SM: The Seldon Corridor Initiative is about innovating at the hyper-neighborhood level. We’re trying to combine new technologies, responsible practices, interesting architecture – both historic and new – social impact uses and more engaging public space. We’re doing this through neighborhood workforce and social impact programs like an accelerator space and brewery training school, as well as new restaurants and the new Eco Homes. We also created and built a beautiful courtyard that will include programming for the community. 

 

TW: Detroit has certainly made great strides in recent years to rebuild its communities and economy. What do you envision for the future of Detroit?

SM: I think it will become a lot more vibrant. Across cities everywhere, I think the pandemic has created a more reasonable pricing dynamic. Whether it’s buying real estate or rent rates, pricing was so high [before]. Lower prices will allow more of our students to afford to live in the neighborhood, as well as existing families to upgrade. Growth will provide good opportunities for the higher-end market too, which we also need. Some repositioning will be for the good of the city and for good of the residents.

Learn more about Sue's work on the Detroit Eco Homes in this project profile.

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