This August 2021 rendering from Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, a California-based architecture firm, shows the site plan for the development project at Grand River Avenue and 14th Street in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood.

Update: An earlier version of this story indicated that the Love Building is formerly known by that name. The building name has not changed.

The developers and designers behind a Core City building that has faced controversy are expanding on that project. But, they also say they are determined to create a multi-building campus that ultimately advances equity.

In July, the Oakland, California-based architecture firm Designing Justice + Designing Spaces (DJDS) purchased four parcels and identified four more to build what they’re calling the Grand River at 14th

Over two phases, the firm is looking to construct two three-story buildings, the first of which it hopes to complete by 2024. Shelley Davis Roberts, architectural associate for DJDS, told Outlier Media there are “lots of factors involved,” like fundraising and selecting tenants, that will dictate when the project ultimately finishes. DJDS is currently aiming to raise $3 million for pre-development, but expects the total campus to cost around $41 million. 

Davis Roberts said that campus is going to be an extension of the firm’s goal of building and designing spaces that advance the cause of ending mass incarceration and structural inequity. 

We see it as an oasis for social justice,” Davis Roberts told Outlier. “It’s really a chance for us to set a precedent for equitable development in Detroit and to support our mission, which is building alternatives to prisons.”

Those goals will be advanced through the programming, which is being informed by a lengthy community engagement process, according to Davis Roberts, that includes “getting feedback from formerly incarcerated or systems-impacted people.” Though still in the planning phase, there will likely be a community kitchen, short-term housing and nonprofit office and meeting spaces.

It’s also an outgrowth of the Love Building that is currently undergoing redevelopment, for which DJDS was the lead architecture firm. 

“This is also about supporting overflow from [the Love Building],” Davis Roberts said. “All of the great programs supported by Allied Media Projects could not fit there, and that’s a huge reason why we wanted to develop a campus next door. 

Shelley Davis Roberts is an architectural associate for Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, the firm leading Allied Media Project’s development project in Detroit’s Core City neighborhood. She said the project is focused on “getting feedback from formerly incarcerated or systems-impacted people who have typically been denied access to workforce development and capital to be able to create business for themselves.”

But that project drew criticism for the way it dealt with tenants. In 2019, Allied Media Projects (AMP) purchased 4731 Grand River, which mostly contained affordable studio space for artists. But AMP evicted the tenants prior to redevelopment, calling into question, for some, the Detroit-based nonprofit’s stated goal of “personal, collective, and systemic transformation.”

AMP plans to redevelop the building, which has a spring 2022 completion date, into what they claim will be the most accessible building in Detroit by creating community space, voluntarily entering into a community benefits agreement with local residents and utilizing Universal Design, a practice that incorporates features that go beyond the standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To learn more about Grand River at 14th, we spoke with Davis Roberts about what features it will have, how it’s conducting community engagement and why the firm chose Detroit as the location for this campus. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Outlier Media: Could you go into a little more detail about some of the features you currently have planned for the buildings?

Shelley Davis Roberts: Right now, we have two buildings planned to be built in two phases. One is a little over 53,000 square feet and the second is 65,000 square feet. They’ll each be three stories, around 55-feet high. There will be landscaping and roof decks where we’ll look to incorporate designs that support sustainability on the campus. 

We’re envisioning this as a peace and alternative justice center with programming to support restorative justice practitioners in the area. There will be, what we call, a social impact retail and food system. There’s a whole food ecosystem in Detroit, from growing and cultivating to distributing. For example, if there’s a local farm nearby, can we connect with them to supply food for restaurants in our community kitchen? Also, what we heard from the community is that the density of the neighborhood has decreased significantly, meaning there aren’t a lot of amenities and retail in the area, so people have to leave to get their daily needs met. Can the campus fill some of those gaps?

But the focus is on getting feedback from formerly incarcerated or systems-impacted people who have typically been denied access to workforce development and capital to be able to create business for themselves. So there’s a lot of moving pieces, and all of it will be about the infrastructure that needs to be in place to end the cycle of mass incarceration. 

Outlier Media: Lots of places around the country have issues with over-incarceration. Why have you decided to establish this campus in Detroit?

Davis Roberts: Our founder, Deanna Van Buren, as part of her work studying restorative justice, read that some organizers were trying to position Detroit as a restorative justice city. She wanted to meet those folks and attended the Allied Media Conference, which was how we got connected in Detroit. We met folks like AMP, Black Family Development, the Detroit Justice Center. That led to DJDS being lead designer on the Love Building. Once we realized that all of our goals couldn’t be accommodated at that building alone, we began looking at opportunities to build a campus nearby. 

All of that emerged from Deanna going to Detroit to connect with other restorative justice practitioners. We’re all about relationship building. Yes, we’re working on projects all over the country and trying to address those issues there as well. But, financially, the real estate market in the Bay Area, where we’re headquartered, is very different from Detroit—creating a development of this size in the Bay isn’t feasible. There’s an opportunity in Detroit, and with the connections we’ve already made with the Love Building, it just made sense to do it there. 

Outlier Media: Some recent developments in Core City, like some of the boutique shops and restaurants at Grand River and Warren avenues, could be described as gentrification. Even redeveloping the Love Building required the eviction of the artists there. How will that dynamic factor into your work?

Davis Roberts: Our work on the campus won’t be in isolation. We’re making an effort to engage with developers implementing projects in our footprint. We’ve had conversations with Cinnaire, Woodbridge Neighborhood Development and Philip Kafka about what they’re doing, and we want to be able to work together to create improvements along Grand River Avenue. We’d love to implement improvements around pedestrian and bicycle safety. 

We’re trying to approach our development efforts differently, and that really comes through in the community engagement process. We’re not just showing up here and saying “here’s what we’re doing,” but instead finding out what the community needs and giving them a vested interest in the project. 

Outlier Media: You’ve talked about community engagement several times. How specifically are you engaging residents? 

Davis Roberts: We’re really trying to operate in full transparency, and lots of it is about demystifying development and design. Of course it’s not perfect; we won’t be able to reach everyone or please everyone. But it’s important for us to be able to connect genuinely with people in the community and provide education around what we’re trying to do as developers in the area. 

To that end, we’ve implemented a designers-on-deck program, where we engage with locals, in particular systems-impacted folks, and train them in the community engagement process so they become part of the DJDS team. We started engagement last year during the pandemic. We held four workshops with people in the community and also some of the organizations that are housed in the Love Building.

We’re also going to be eventually establishing feedback loops as part of this—expanding the designers-on-deck program to grow our outreach, along with a website so people can come and find out more about the progress of the project. 

Outlier Media: What kinds of things have you learned from engagement so far?

Davis Roberts: We had some great conversations around who gets to occupy space and where. At many of the spaces on the campus, you won’t need an appointment or need to spend money. We found out that people wanted outdoor space, in particular a community gathering space, which many considered essential to be able to come and feel welcome. There will be a multifunctional welcome center where you’ll be able to find out what’s happening in the community, charge your phone and sit down and use a computer. 

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221.