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Flint, Michigan, looks to shake off stigmas of the past with a rising downtown

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Development has given the Michigan city momentum outside the typical media narrative

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Welcome back to Property Lines, a column by Curbed senior reporter Patrick Sisson that spotlights real estate trends and hot housing markets across the country. Comments, tips, and suggestions on where Property Lines should head next are welcome at patrick@curbed.com.

It’s a common refrain: Flint still doesn’t have clean drinking water. This outcry, a reference to the long-standing crisis over tainted water, has become shorthand for the Michigan city. After being caricatured as suffering by decades of economic fallout from a shrinking auto industry, Flint has found itself uncomfortably lodged in the national news cycle, stuck on repeat.

But in a real estate and development market assumed to be on the ropes, there are unmistakeable signs of life. A landmark theater is buzzing with workers rehabbing its facade. Down the block, tech firms are scouting out locations in new co-working spaces and innovation hubs carved from nearby Art Deco warehouses and former department stores. A relocated farmers market had more than doubled its annual attendance in just a few years.

Similar stories of urban regeneration have been replayed dozens of times across the Rust Belt. Slowly, it’s becoming the narrative of Flint. For the last few years, as the water crisis dominated headlines, development along and near the city’s main drag, Saginaw Street, has picked up momentum. New loft apartments, office spaces, and other commercial projects have reenergized downtown.

The potential centerpiece of these efforts, the $37 million restoration and renovation of the Capitol Theatre, a 1920s landmark designed to resemble a Roman garden, broke ground late last year, with a new bright blue marquee going up over the holiday season (today, the retro block letters are LEDs, not incandescent bulbs). Taking shape down the block from a cluster of new and under-construction co-working spaces and innovation hubs, the theater may be the brightest sign yet of Flint’s slow but steady revival.

“You can throw money at anything, and fix anything, but it’s hard to change perception,” says John Gazall, an architect and principal at Gazall, Lewis & Associates, a Flint-based firm that has worked on many new buildings downtown. “People turn on the nightly news and hear about the water crisis, and that’s certainly happening. But most people outside of Flint think of downtown and imagine [it as] vacant and desolate. You’d have a hard time finding a vacant building today.”

Gazall offers up a “mini Detroit” comparison to describe Flint today. Both cities were built up, and some would say burned out, on cars. Legendary GM co-founder Billy Durant first set up shop in Flint in 1886, establishing the Flint Road Cart Company. A once-notorious brownfield site in town was simply called Chevy in the Hole, a reference to its status as the former home of an auto plant nestled into a depression bisected by the Flint River. At one point in the 1970s, the city boasted 80,000 GM jobs. Today, the automaker employs roughly 8,000, a precipitous drop symbolic of economic loss, but also reinvention.

To add to those hardships, the water crisis, which hit in April of 2014 after the city switched the municipal water supply, was another gut punch for the city. Due to insufficient water treatment and aged lead pipes, thousands of residents and children were exposed to dangerous, lead-contaminated water. Since the entire system won’t be fully replaced until 2019, the crisis has and will linger, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Like many other former industrial hubs, Flint and its leaders hitched the city’s future to universities and hospitals, such as Kettering University, a well-respected enginering school; the local branch of University of Michigan; and the Hurley Medical Center. But local developers and entrepreneurs have recently seen potential in the city’s downtown, which started losing businesses when auto industry layoffs began to hit hard in the mid-’80s.

The Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, a nonprofit started in 2002, was one of the first to invest in a more active downtown. It has led a number of high-profile projects, such as the First Street Lofts, which opened in 2014; the Flint Journal Building, a 1924 Albert Kahn structure now home to MSU’s College of Medicine; and the redevelopment of the old Rowe Engineering Building into a sleek new commercial space. Gazall calls the firm the “Dan Gilbert of Flint,” because like the billionaire’s real estate moves in Detroit, Uptown’s pioneering early projects paved the way for the current wave of development in Flint.

According to Bryce Moe, managing director at SkyPoint Ventures, a local development firm focused on commercial projects, parts of downtown are reaching critical mass, especially after the Flint Farmers Market returned to the city center in 2014. It had attracted 250,000 shoppers annually at its former location near the river, but drew more than 750,000 last year, and was named one of the Great Places in America by the American Planning Association in 2015.

“We’re not Manhattan, Silicon Valley, or even Ann Arbor,” he says. “But we have a whole lot of hardworking people here, and we think we have a model that can spur a different way of thinking. We want to get people in the process, get their idea out there, see if it’s right for commercialization, and see if there’s support out there in the market.”

Two recent SkyPoint projects were built to attract entrepreneurs and new businesses. The Dryden Building, a five-story former retail hub for legacy stores such as J.C. Penney, was turned into mixed-use, Class A real estate, while the neighboring seven-story Art Deco warehouse and office that once housed Ferris Bros. Furs, a local clothing company, will reopen this spring as the Ferris Wheel building, a 40,000-square-foot co-working hub complete with an upscale coffee shop.

“Now that there are universities and restaurants downtown, you have a fuller experience,” says Moe. “There’s a significant amount of momentum.”

There’s also increasing density. Located a little over two blocks from the farmers market, the adjacent Dryden and Ferris Wheel buildings also share the same alleyway as the Capitol Theater. The expected draw of this resurrected performing arts center, a 1,500-seat venue set to open in late 2017 or 2018, should further rehabilitate downtown Flint.

According to Jarret Haynes, executive director of The Whiting, a performing arts space in Flint spearheading the Capitol revival, the excitement over the new theater demonstrates the collective spirit that live events offers, which can build community and drive business on a regional level.

“This development is harnessing the well-established power of arts and culture to be the tipping point for the re-establishment of the urban core,” he says. “Go back to Lincoln Center on the west side of Manhattan, or the Kauffman Center in Kansas City. Urban planners in Flint got it right 100 years ago [when they] put the urban living room at the center of the city.”

Arts and culture have also played important roles in spreading development past the downtown core, to the parts of Flint hardest hit by a string of economic downturns and the water crisis. These neighborhoods haven’t shared in all the benefits of a more-thriving downtown.

Stephen Zacks, creative director of the Flint Public Arts Project, which reclaims and re-imagines the city’s vacant spaces with art projects, installations, and new community spaces, has seen success slowly spread to other areas of town. In Carriage Town, a historic district across the river from downtown, the Factory Two project has reclaimed an abandoned car factory, building out an event space inside its corrugated metal frame.

While downtown growth in Flint provides a welcome counterpoint to the dominant media narrative about the city, Zacks and others feel more attention and resources need to be focused on other parts of the city, especially underdeveloped commercial corridors. Kevin Schronce, lead planner for the City of Flint, says change so far has been concentrated, and needs to be more evenly distributed.

“You’re going to see some continued growth in the true urban core of the city, and my hope is that it’ll begin to stabilize some of the larger, historically disinvested corridors,” he says.

Many in Flint struck a tone of cautious optimism. They are aware of the challenges of lead contamination and the continued need for state and federal investment, as well as the potential for the next year to be a real catalyst for the city. After all, Flint has a role model right down Interstate 75 that’s been fighting to emerge from a similarly stigmatizing media spin.

“Detroit went through its own challenges and is experiencing an amazing revitalization,” says Moe. “It’s an amazing story, and I think we’re four years behind that. People just got sick of the status quo and said, ‘screw it, I’m going to do something about it.’”