For almost 37 years, real estate attorney Denise J. Lewis had provided creative strategies and rendered savvy leadership to successfully complete complex development projects for Honigman LLC. In her senior position, Lewis, while based in downtown Detroit, built a strong reputation for skillfully representing many local, regional, and national developers in transactions that involved public/private partnerships, urban redevelopment, and mixed-use development. After what has been described as a brilliant career at Honigman, in July of this year, Lewis retired.
As the senior partner of Honigman’s Urban Redevelopment Practice Group, a group she founded 20 years ago, Lewis as chair, directed a team of approximately 15 attorneys to complete multi-tiered urban development and redevelopment projects, including office buildings, shopping centers, hotels, apartment complexes, single-family residential projects, and mixed-use development projects.
Under her guidance, her group was heralded as one of the largest and most-well-respected real estate practices among law firms in the nation. Chambers USA, a highly regarded publication, lists Honigman’s real estate department as the No. 1 unit in the state of Michigan.
While Lewis has many successful real estate development projects in her portfolio, in 2017 and 2018 alone, she closed 15 deals valued at approximately $580 million. Among those deals were the new construction of mixed-use projects in the downtown Detroit Paradise Valley District, financing for the redevelopment of an historic office building to be the new home of the Michigan Chronicle, and the redevelopment of an historic structure to be the corporate headquarters for Hamilton Anderson Associates (architecture firm). There are other signature development projects in the city completed during Lewis’ tenure, including the Detroit Pistons Training Facility and Corporate Headquarters in Midtown.
For Lewis, urban redevelopment projects in cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit have been rewarding.
“I am proud of the work that Honigman and I have done over the years in many of the cities that had their ups and downs,” Lewis said. “Detroit is one of the important cities where we have helped make projects happen. They were incredibly challenging, didn’t look like they were going to happen, but changed the landscape for the city and people who live in the city.”
Lewis believes while it’s important for the city to build its tax base, at the same time it must create and maintain affordable housing.
“We have to make the balance work so that we welcome new residents into Detroit while maintaining housing opportunities for lower income Detroiters who have lived here long term,” said Lewis. “A vibrant city has a mixture of ethnicities, income levels and ages. That’s why it’s important that we make a way for people who are low and middle income to be included in that community.”
Lewis admits that she has been interested in how communities are formed and how people organize since her late teens. She was also intrigued with the intricacies of policymaking and political action and how it impacted people. With such a mindset, Lewis, after graduating from Detroit’s Mumford High School, attended Columbia University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science.
She ultimately received her master’s degree in political science from Wayne State University, between her years of working for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and later being appointed to the administration teams of Detroit Mayors Roman Gribbs (early 1970s) and Coleman A. Young (mid-to-late 1970s), respectively. Lewis left her position in the Young administration to attend the University of Michigan Law School, where she earned her Juris Doctor (cum laude).
She started her legal career at Honigman in 1983. The law firm, founded in Detroit in 1948, operates six offices in Michigan and one in Chicago. The firm, headquartered in downtown Detroit, currently has approximately 300 attorneys practicing law in more than 60 practice areas.
“For me, the decision to stay with Honigman for almost 37 years was a combination of things,” Lewis explained. “I found satisfaction in real estate development. I also wanted to stay because I was accepted into the leadership of the firm. I was on the board of directors for almost 10 years, and I was the diversity partner for the firm for more than 25 years. I felt that I was able to make a valuable impact at the firm and that’s what kept me there until I retired.”
“We are proud that Denise has been at the forefront of many of the major real estate projects leading to the revitalization of Detroit and other cities,” said David Foltyn, partner, chairman and CEO, Honigman LLP. “We greatly appreciate her contribution to the law firm’s leadership, serving as a member of the firm’s Board of Directors and Diversity Partner for a number of years. Denise has made many exemplary contributions to diversity, inclusion, and equity as a leader within and outside the firm.”
A significant part of Lewis ‘contribution at Honigman has been to empower other minorities.
“One of my real emphasis at Honigman was to be dedicated to mentoring other women and African American lawyers,” she said. “Over the years, there were many lawyers – young lawyers and career lawyers – that I had an opportunity to touch their lives. Mentoring has been the focus of my entire career. I wanted to be an example of showing that you don’t have to sacrifice your integrity to be successful.”
During her long tenure at Honigman “the Lewis effect” was appreciated in numerous external circles. She received dozens of honors and awards over her career from industry publications, has been included in Michigan Super Lawyers listings from 2006 – 2017. The Michigan Chronicle included Lewis in its 2008 class of “Women of Excellence” and Savoy Magazine in 2015 named Lewis one of the Nation’s Most Influential Black Lawyers.
While the life of a retiree means different things to different people, for Lewis it means still using her time and talents to impact and empower others. She has begun consulting with New York-based Africa-America Institute, an organization she describes as a longstanding entity dedicated to bringing Africa and America together on numerous fronts. In retirement, Lewis also plans to do more traveling and look forward to spending more time with her two adult sons who live on the east coast.
Lewis has another vision that she hopes to help bring to fruition.
“I hope that more African Americans will look at real estate,” said Lewis, a fierce advocate for Detroit’s minority developers. “Real estate represents a means by which wealth has been built for various communities. Owning real estate and developing real estate have been means by which people, either individually or as a community, build wealth. We must see real estate as a tool to an end. It can be the foundation for building a community, a family, and a way to close this wealth gap for African Americans.”