Setting an East Side Example
Twenty-one years ago, Maggie DeSantis and other Eastsiders created an organization to redevelop some of the most devastated real estate in the city.
The organization they created was a community development corporation called the Warren Conner Development Coalition
, and DeSantis became its first director.
The group is one of more than 50 community development corporations (CDCs) throughout the city, each passionately engaged with its piece of real estate, slowly connecting the dots of an emerging new Detroit.
DeSantis has done a lion’s share of that work with Warren Conner. The group’s mission is true to the term “community development.” Along with new residential and commercial projects, including the Mack-Alter Square, DeSantis has helped forge a community identity on the East Side, a sense of place that was not there 21 years ago — or certainly not with the vitality it enjoys today. East Side roots
The East Side is home for DeSantis, who grew up around Seven Mile and Hoover. Hers was a predominantly white, ethnic neighborhood that resisted integration during the 1950s. She says that even as a child she had a feeling there was something askew in her neighborhood, and that she was destined to do “some work that would make a difference in the city.”
She didn’t know what that work would be, even after she graduated with a degree in education from Wayne State University. She moved to northern Michigan where she found herself becoming more of a community activist than an educator. But her activities and assertive personality conflicted with the more conservative culture of the area. When she completed her master’s degree in education, with an emphasis in community leadership, at Central Michigan University, she told herself: “I belong home.”
DeSantis joined New Detroit, a coalition dedicated to improving race relations and cultural collaborations, in 1976 and developed an interest in community development. Through her work, she came to know civic and corporate leaders, but she wanted to be in the neighborhoods, “on the street.”
She moved to the Neighborhood Services Organization on the East Side, and there she found her calling with Warren Conner. Her accomplishments through the Warren Conner Development Coalition (named after another East Side intersection that the group originally wanted to develop) include:
• Creating the citywide Save our Spirit Coalition to direct block grant funds to neighborhood organizations;
• Initiating U-SNAP-BAC Inc.
, a consortium of East Side neighborhood groups that work together on housing developments such as MorningSide Commons, near Mack and Alter roads;
• Helping establish the Detroit Eastside Community Collaborative, a group of 12 community development organizations dedicated to improving the East Side’s economy;
• Establishing a community newspaper, Pipeline, which circulates 30,000 copies quarterly;
• Creating Eastside Industrial Council, a network of manufacturers in the area;
• Helping establish Youth on the Edge of Greatness, a program that helps young people make constructive choices;
• Establishing a Partnership for Economic Independence with the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, which helps people move from welfare to self-sufficiency;
• Creating Land Assembly for Neighborhood Development Inc., a nonprofit subsidiary of Warren Conner, which combines commercial real estate brokerage with services to assist the city, developers and community members.Vindication at Alter
For DeSantis, one of her biggest accomplishments sits on about a dozen acres around Mack Avenue stretching into the city from Alter Road, which borders Grosse Pointe Park. The area was “a mess” in 1985. Then, the owner of an abandoned building sitting in the middle of that mess donated it to Warren Conner. Owning a building in the middle of nothing is not a very good investment, however.
In 1987, Warren Conner formed a for-profit company called Detroit East Community Development Corp. Two hundred and fifty local shareholders invested about $2 million to assemble five acres of land on Mack. Over time, the original building was renovated to house a Secretary of State office. But there were obstacles to further redevelopment.
“It became real clear, as a community development corporation we didn’t have the kind of deep pockets and expertise we needed to realize the full dream for Mack-Alter,” DeSantis says. “It was very, very frustrating.”
In 2000, Warren Conner changed its strategy. Instead of being the developer, it used its land and influence to help another developer.
The CDC partnered with East Side developer Curis Enterprises, which also developed Riverbend Plaza on East Jefferson Avenue, to launch a $20 million, five-phase plan to develop the four corners of Mack Avenue at Alter Road into Mack-Alter Square. There’s a Wow convenience store and gas station, an Aldi Food store, Rite Aid, First Independence Bank, President Tuxedo, Chicken Shack and H&R Block. The final phase — the Grosse Pointe corner — is expected to be announced in 2006.
“It has been quite a long journey,” says DeSantis, “but we feel vindicated now. It’s easy for people to say, ‘What a great idea – developing close to Grosse Pointe.’”
Michael Curis of Curis Enterprises lauded DeSantis’ ability to deal with developers without relinquishing her passion for her constituency. “You don’t pull any punches with Maggie, and she doesn’t pull any punches with you. … There’s no sugar coating, no hiding issues because they’re too hard to deal with. She’s a very honest person.”
Community advocates must understand the business side of commercial development, DeSantis says. “You have to be willing to deal with what they (developers and businesses) want. The fact that they want to make money is not offensive to us. That’s the economy we’re in, the world we’re in,” she says. “We view ourselves as working on behalf of the community. It’s not that we’re unwilling to compromise, but there are certain things that we believe we need to get for the community. We stick to that.”
DeSantis also can be “a rabble-rouser,” when she needs to, Curis says. “She was a drum-pounder. She was pretty aggressive in her past. As we all get older, we mature and realize what works and what doesn’t. Clearly, she’s capable of — at any point in time, when she knows she has to — doing a little screaming and yelling.”‘The comeback part of town’
While the Mack redevelopment may be the physical mark that DeSantis leaves on the East Side, she insists her legacy is the Warren Conner organization. “For me, the most important thing I’ve accomplished is that we have created an organization whose activities and body of work over time has been a really major reason why the East Side has been viewed as the comeback part of town.”
Still, DeSantis says she plans to leave her position in five years. “No organization should be too tied to one person,” she says. “I’m working to leave behind something that outlasts me. I know that organizations like this that are created by one person don’t last if that one person stays too long.”
DeSantis, who lives with her 10-year old daughter in the city’s West Village neighborhood, modestly compares her achievements on the East Side with other areas of the city, “where grassroots efforts take hold — either because the city encourages it … or because groups of people put it together.
“It’s a group of people, for whatever reason, who have an attachment for a given part of the community and they organize. Period,” she says. “That’s what we’ve done over time, and we’ve been able to show, by example, that if it can be done in one of the most devastated parts of the city, it could be done elsewhere.”
Scott Benson, real estate manager for Warren Connor, Mark Thomas of Curis Development, Maggie DeSantis and Michael CurisMaggie DeSantisMack/Alter SquareWow! PlazaMichael Curis
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger