Barbara Barefield

Being able to provide affordable housing while preserving the neighborhood’s history was part of the plan when Shelborne Development Co. set out to restore three blighted buildings on Detroit’s east side.

The opening of the resulting project, Chalmers Square, has brought much-needed life back to the area by attracting permanent residents to the community’s 49 apartments, as well as business to its 17,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, according to company owner Kathy Makino-Leipsitz.

“Even though it seems we’re reducing the potential density of the area with fewer, larger units, we’re increasing the actual density by creating foot traffic and maintaining the architectural integrity,” she says.

The units range from 824 to 1,648 square feet and comprise one-, two-, and three-bedroom plans.

Providing safe, decent, and affordable places for people to live is the key to rebuilding a downtrodden community. But, as ­Makino-Leipsitz notes, preserving the history of the area while finding a public purpose for its abandoned buildings was also an important consideration.

“We have such an inventory of existing vacant buildings [in Detroit], so many of them with architectural detail you will never see again,” she says. “It makes no sense to knock them down and build something new in their place.”

The restoration of the buildings, which once fell prey to squatters and drug activity, has also helped develop a sense of safety in the area, by returning usable space—in the form of newly renovated housing equipped with a security system—to heavily traveled Jefferson Avenue, a main thoroughfare in the city.

Chalmers Square was supported by local affordable housing advocates and received financing from the state and the city, in addition to brownfield ­credits.