Whole Foods caps developer’s 15-year Midtown renewal plan

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By John Gallagher, via Detroit Free Press

Any would-be real estate developer needs a variety of traits — good with numbers and a knowledge of construction to name two — but perhaps the most important trait is perseverance.

Case in point: Developer Peter Cummings’ 15-year effort to build out the site of the new Whole Foods grocery store, which opens in early June in Detroit’s Midtown district.

“I certainly ended up a long-term holder,” Cummings reminisced recently of his efforts with the 4-acre site on the north side of Mack between Woodward and John R.

When Cummings bought the parcel in the ’90s, it was vacant but for a bank branch. But it seemed ideally located at one of Midtown’s crossroads. Cummings’ conception was always to have at least some residential on the site.

“From the first time I got involved doing anything from a real estate standpoint in Detroit, I realized that unless we had housing that people wanted and we started to build back a residential base of some sort, nothing else was going to happen that would energize the city in a real way,” he said.

First, though, came a partnership with Wayne State University to build a 954-space parking garage on the site, which opened in 2003. Then Cummings achieved his goal of building residential when he opened the Ellington in 2006 — 55 upscale units that today are mostly condominiums, with retail on the ground floor.

That still left a good chunk of land vacant along Mack near John R. That’s the spot Whole Foods eventually chose for its new store after a lengthy search. Financing was complex, as it always is on Detroit deals, but eventually it all came together.

“I am pleased,” Cummings said. “I think from my point of view, the Midtown area has always been the neighborhood that had the best chance to become a true urban mixed-use neighborhood.”

Cummings’ real estate business is actually centered in Florida, but he got involved in Detroit through his relationship with his late father-in-law Max Fisher, a businessman and philanthropist.

“He encouraged me to do things in Detroit and (his) own commitment in Detroit inspired me,” Cummings said.

Thinking of his long-term work on the Whole Foods site, he continued, “It’s one of those developments that you do for reasons beyond pure economics.”

He continued, “In the development business you have two different kinds of opportunities, one where you’re building something and it fits the site and it works economically and you do it. The other is the kind that has the impact beyond its boundaries in terms of place-making and neighborhood building.

“Those don’t come around all that frequently and when they do you savor them.”

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