The Freelon at Sugar Hill is an institution in its own right.
Detroit’s newest multi-use housing complex, located in Midtown, brings 68 units online in the city’s historic Sugar Hill neighborhood.
On Thursday, September 22 in the Sugar Hill Arts District, city and area officials broke ground on the multi-use housing complex 119 Garfield St.
The $38 million housing project from Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH) and Develop Detroit includes housing for Detroit residents and deeply affordable units for veterans, as well as commercial space for entrepreneurs.
Twenty of 68 apartments are reserved for residents earning between 30% and 80% of the area median income.
Fourteen apartments are reserved for veterans with six other affordable apartments for those earning up to 80 percent area median income (AMI). All residents will reap the benefits of using shared spaces in the building’s community lounge, workout room, and other amenities, including outdoor greenspace, attached parking, and new businesses, including a coffee shop.
The project replaces a vacant lot at Garfield near John R with 11,900 square feet of retail space and a 160-space parking garage.
The site is across from the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center, and 14 of the 20 affordable units were created for veterans served by the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development’s HUD-VASH (VA Supportive Housing) voucher program through the Dingell VA Medical Center. All veterans’ apartments come fully furnished and decorated.
Sonya Mays, president & CEO of Develop Detroit Inc., told the Michigan Chronicle before the ribbon cutting that it’s been a “long time coming.”
“We started working on this in 2017, it got interrupted by the pandemic,” Mays said. “It’s been a journey, a tough journey to get done. I’m excited because it looks great and I’m happy to be able to celebrate it with everybody today.”
Behind The Name
For decades, beginning in the early 1900s, the Sugar Hill Arts District was home to African-American-owned jazz clubs and other business and cultural establishments.
Sugar Hill was not only a thriving entertainment and nightlife district in the 1940s-60s but it was also designated a national and local historic district in 2002, because of its rich history and well-known for being the hub of jazz and entertainment venues. Nowadays, Sugar Hill boasts a blend of residential, mixed-use, and arts-related businesses, and is home to cultural mainstays like the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) and the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.
Local artist Judy Bowman’s work is displayed around the building, which she told the Michigan Chronicle personifies Sugar Hill and more.
“This all ties into Black Bottom, Paradise Valley, Sugar Hill,” she said. “It was quite an honor because I’ve always wanted to do a public installation in my hometown of Detroit.”
The building is named in honor of the late Phil Freelon, one of the most cherished Black architects in U.S. history. The building was one of the last developments that he worked on before his death in 2019. Freelon’s other works include the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington and Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Freelon’s widow, Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nnenna Freelon, attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and spoke on the impact that the housing complex will have going forward.
Mays said during her speech that a few hundred people have touched the project.
“It just takes a lot of people,” she said thanking the many collaborators who helped make the project possible.
The groundbreaking ceremony, which coincides with the 12th annual Detroit Month of Design, is a moment that Mays said (although coincidental) represents the continuous creative legacy that she purposes to keep alive.
“We have a really deep and rich legacy of creative energy and expression here and from the very beginning of this building design process our development team wanted to honor that creative and artistic legacy,” she said, adding that the units are nothing short of “amazing.” “They’re all different; they’re trauma-informed design.”
Mays added that she hopes Freelon would be proud of their work, which he more than likely would be.
“Phil explained (previously) that when he works on a building he wants a building designed to be of its place and of its time, and to have a reference back to the culture that is specific and special about that location,” she said. “We want to do that here at Sugar Hill.”
Antoine Bryant, director, of Planning and Development, City of Detroit, told the Michigan Chronicle that it’s an excitement to be working with prolific developer Mays and tribute the building to Freelon — not only a tremendous African American architect but his personal mentor.
“It is a great representation of who he is, who he was as a designer and more importantly as a person,” Bryant said. “All of these things collectively are going to be tremendous for the greater, at-large community and city of Detroit.”
Freelon’s wife, Nnenna Freelon, said that “this is a moment when dreams are coming true.”
“And we are glad about it,” she said. “My husband was a dream builder. He was a listener. … Before we agreed on concrete and steel and other materials, there were dreams. Dreams that included the least of us. … dreams that included those who do not have a roof over their heads. Because we know that justice begins with home.”
In addition to bringing much-needed quality affordable housing, the project is also significant because it extends the thriving green alleyway that has become a major destination in the popular Midtown entertainment and restaurant district. An outdoor space adjacent to the building, developed in coordination with Midtown Detroit Inc., connects to the existing green alley and will be enjoyed by the building’s tenants, community residents, and visitors. The Freelon also adds a garage with 160 parking spaces for use by residents and the public.
“This project brings much-needed housing, not only for the growing number of Midtown residents but also for our veterans,” said Julie Schneider, director of HRD. “HRD is committed to ensuring our city provides high quality, affordable housing for Detroiters of all means and walks of life. We are proud to partner with Develop Detroit and POAH on this project.”
“POAH is honored to help bring more quality, sustainable housing and access to opportunity to Detroiters,” said Aaron Gornstein, president and CEO of POAH. “We couldn’t be more excited about this project in the heart of Midtown and to have partnered with Develop Detroit to make the Freelon at Sugar Hill a reality.”
Develop Detroit is a mission-focused real estate development company leveraging the power of real estate to strengthen neighborhoods and overcome housing inequity.
“At Develop Detroit, we believe in high-quality housing for all,” said Sonya Mays, president, and CEO of Develop Detroit. “This development not only will become home to Detroiters of all walks of life but is also one that reflects the needs and desires of our neighbors in the community. We are also proud to be serving our city’s veterans and to be adding affordable housing to Midtown.”
The project exemplified public-private partnerships and brought together many partners, with several including funds from the City of Detroit, New Market Tax Credit (NMTC) equity from PNC Bank, and a $4 million first mortgage from PNC Bank and $5 million in financing through Prudential Financial and POAH.
For more information on how to apply to The Freelon at Sugar Hill, residents can visit the City’s affordable housing website, Detroit Home Connect here. The property listing is available here. The veterans’ units are available to HUD-VASH recipients through referral by the VA.