Detroit Urban Developer, Builder Maintains Passion For Re-urbanization, Historic Preservation

Melvin Washington

There’s a certain aura of pride and passion that accompanies native Detroiter Melvin Washington as he goes about his daily business as an urban planner, real estate developer/ redeveloper, general contractor/builder, property manager, and historic preservationist.

As president and CEO of the Detroit-based Phoenix Group Companies, a cutting-edge group of real estate entities, Washington heads one of the city’s most progressive development/building conglomerations of affordable and market rate housing for urban neighborhoods.

In addition, under Washington’s leadership is Castle Construction, a prolific builder of affordable housing in various communities of Detroit through the utilization of Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) financing. Additionally, he is one of the city’s most ardent historic preservationists, having acquired and preserved architecturally and historically significant buildings in the Motor City.

Washington and his award-winning companies are currently focused on rehabbing the historic Whittier Hotel through a project called River Park Village/Whittier Manor. The hotel, in its heyday, lodged such famous people as the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Eleanor Roosevelt. Located at 415 Burns Dr., just south of Jefferson Ave. on the fringe of downtown Detroit, the project has been divided into two phases.

Phase one, which was completed three years ago, created 120 apartment units on eight floors that offer seniors affordable luxury living with an array of amenities. Washington is now close to beginning phase two of Whittier Manor, which will rehab the adjoining 15-story building, which was also a part of the legendary Whittier Hotel.

Expected to be completed in late 2015 or early 2016, the high-rise will feature 150 units for a diverse population of people looking for luxury living along the Detroit River. According to Washington, when all is said and done, the price tag for the rehabilitation/redevelopment of both phases of the Whittier Manor will be in the neighborhood of $120 million.

“When I purchased the old Whittier Hotel in 2003, it was totally empty and had been neglected for years,” said Washington. “Now, it has become my signature project. A lot of the big guys wanted it, but by the grace of God, I have it. It will be an awesome place to live as this whole area will once again become vibrant.”

Washington recently received the Governor’s Award for rehabbing historical homes in the Boston-Edison Historical District.

In addition to his historic preservation endeavors at the old Whittier Hotel, Washington is proud of his company’s rehabilitation of the nationally recognized historic Eighth Precinct Police Station, located at 4150 West Grand River in the Woodbridge neighborhood. Built in 1901, based on the architectural vision of Louis Kamper, the former Detroit Police Department precinct which looks like a medieval castle, now serves as the corporate headquarters of Washington’s Castle Construction and the Phoenix Group Companies.

Additionally, Washington owns the historic National Theater in downtown Detroit, which is the last theater left standing from the city’s first theater district. The theater, designed by famed architect Albert Kahn, opened in 1911. Since purchasing the National Theater, Washington has poured more than $1.5 million in its preservation and maintenance.

While rehabbing and preserving historically significant buildings are major chapters in the Melvin Washington story, they do not totally define him professionally. For more than two decades, Washington, through his companies, has perhaps been Detroit neighborhoods’ greatest and most prolific urban planner, developer, redeveloper and builder. His companies’ portfolio is full of community-based projects that have resulted in the creation of affordable housing.

Some of Washington’s more than 35 company projects include Jefferson Meadows (Freud St.), Friendship Meadows I (Leland St.) and Friendship Meadows II (Leland St.), Core City West Village (17th St.), Core City Estates Phase I (West Alexandrine St.), Core City Estates II (Selden St.), Mildred Smith Manor I (Trumbull Ave.) and Mildred Smith Manor II (West Forest Ave.).

“I really consider myself a community or neighborhood builder,” said Washington. “I’m into more of a holistic approach of how to build not only affordable housing, but the auxiliary things that better support and empower the neighborhoods. I want to rebuild our neighborhoods, just like people want to rebuild downtown.”

Growing up in the West Seven Mile Road/ Livernois sector of the city’s west side, Washington developed a great love for his community and other beautiful neighborhoods around Detroit. He also became intrigued by the countless historic buildings throughout the city.

“As a youth growing up in Detroit, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” said Washington. “I wanted to change neighborhoods and communities. I wanted to make them stronger so that they would provide stable environments for people wanting to raise families. I was also a closet preservationist as a youth growing up in this city.”

After graduating from Cooley High School, Washington attended Michigan State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in construction management and subsequently, a master’s degree in administrative and land development. While in undergraduate school, he began working with a major construction company. The opportunity allowed him to be a part of building thousands of affordable houses across urban America, including Michigan.

“I learned the models and said to myself, ‘Why can’t I do this myself in urban America, especially in Detroit?” said Washington, who was once a project engineer for affordable homes built in North Miami, Florida. “So I learned everything that I possibly could about building affordable housing.”

In 1990, Washington returned to Detroit and started Phoenix Group Consultants in 1992, before beginning multiple companies that led to forming Phoenix Group Companies.

As Washington continues to move forward with development and building projects, he refuses to move away from his passion for rehabbing/redeveloping historic buildings and building affordable housing in Detroit neighborhoods. He hopes that his endeavors to rebuild the city’s neighborhoods become contagious.

He works strategically with non-profit and faith-based organizations to help with community development.

“The neighborhoods can be the key to Detroit’s comeback,” said Washington. “We know how to build communities and subdivisions in places like Novi, Farmington Hills or on Gratiot and 25 Mile Rd., all of which are relatively new. However, no one has really gotten into urban redevelopment or re-urbanism.”


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