To The Core

This article is also available in Spanish

Core City reclaims pieces of Detroit’s history to create an urban woodland.

By Ujijji Davis, ASLA

“Ideas don’t land—they emerge,” Julie Bargmann, ASLA, began. On the corner of Grand River and Warren Avenues in Detroit’s Core City stands a cluster of renovated postindustrial buildings, rising starkly amid the remnants of a long-quieted commercial corridor. Within the cluster are the new Ochre Bakery, Magnet restaurant, and a web of small new offices and enterprises. Anchoring the cluster at the center is Core City Park.

In design and execution, Core City Park is an urban woodland. It formalizes Detroit’s naturalized typologies with a true sense of care and intentionality. The park expertly blurs the sense of boundaries through a grove of deciduous trees and an intermittent carpet of ferns and native violets. The site is furnished with found relics and leftover construction materials, all of which establish clearings and seating areas within the groves. An industrial rail line rumbles occasionally across the street.

In the traditional sense of landscape architecture, where there are outdoor rooms with specific programs, this space allows you to break away without leaving the park. Core City Park distributes lush green clusters that frame and link together a network of groves and clearings to characterize a wilderized landscape within a fixed urban typology. Grand River Avenue and the surrounding buildings create a permeable edge that helps Core City Park blur the binaries of public and private, open and intimate, wild and formal. The urban yet natural duality of this park speaks to an effective landscape marriage that fully invites the Detroit context (and discontext) to liven and expand a central green space.

Views across Grand River Avenue anchor the park soundly in Detroit’s urban landscape. Photo courtesy Chris Miele.

Core City Park is the product of a collaboration between Julie Bargmann’s D.I.R.T. Studio and a local developer, Philip Kafka, the founder and president of Prince Concepts. Bargmann, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, met Kafka in Detroit, and they immediately identified a kinship in using a landscape-first approach for development that seemed to fit perfectly in the city of Detroit. “In my experience it is way too rare to have a client—he’s not a client, he’s a collaborator—you trust,” Bargmann told me. “I could not believe he trusted me. And he [said], ‘We’ll figure it out as we go.’ It was a trust in a basic vision.”

Within two weeks of Bargmann’s and Kafka’s meeting, Core City Park was born and under construction. The site originally was home to the Detroit Fire Department’s Engine 12 and Ladder 9 in the late 1800s. The buildings were eventually decommissioned and demolished in 1976, a response to Detroit’s plummeting population. The site has remained empty and unoccupied since then. When I asked about how the project started, Bargmann said, “He asked me, ‘What would you do?’ I said, ‘Dig! There’s something under here.’” The woodland intervention gives the lot a new life by first bringing the site’s buried spirit back to the surface. The ground plane is a blend of pea gravel, concrete, and other aggregates from the old firehouse. The interchanging brick pavers jigsaw through and across, connecting seamlessly with the pale concrete walk.

Revealing the foundations and perimeters of the razed buildings, now long gone. Photo courtesy D.I.R.T. Studio.

Kafka pointed to the larger concrete seating areas in the grove clearings. “These are from the walls of a bank vault, and this dated stone is from the firehouse—there was a lot of history hidden underneath this when it was a parking lot.” They commented how they wanted to respond sensitively to Detroit’s recent characterization. How do you reuse aspects of the site without turning it into ruin porn or industrial chic? How do you bring a historic materiality to the forefront and maintain a local familiarity?

The development approach serves as a micromodel that couples small public space with a commercial and retail presence that is high in density and small in scale. Across the city, small public spaces support local business by helping to establish placeness—especially in a city with vast passive landscapes. Core City Park adds to the portfolio of precedents in Detroit that define place through the synergy of public open space with business activity that continues to evolve even as businesses change or transition.

The date stone for Engine 12 and Ladder 9. Photo courtesy D.I.R.T. Studio.

Bargmann and Kafka have a great designer–developer relationship that many people of either occupation would covet. Their mutual admiration highlights the merits of finding allies of design and the design process who can help to bolster the ways we think about landscape architecture in the urban context.

The park’s urban woodland typology is one they say they hope to continue in their future projects together in Detroit. D.I.R.T. Studio and Prince Concepts are collaborating on a master plan for 20 acres in the same neighborhood that centralizes housing within a parkland landscape. Their goal is to eliminate the ideas of fixed circulatory patterns at the neighborhood scale, weaving people between public and private property. The project is landscape-focused in that there will be enough development to support and subsidize the landscape features. It rejects urban density and introduces a new typology of a bucolic urban landscape that embraces Detroit’s vacancy.

Land and the perception of ownership are tricky subjects in Detroit. Local stewardship is a core strength of the various neighborhood residents’ and block groups, especially after years of disinvestment. Here, in a city where development is moving rapidly and slowly at the same time, living within a parkland typology already exists for many residents. “Parkland is already here, but it doesn’t have a legible presence that expands beyond melancholy,” Bargmann commented.

The history of land here in Detroit is checkered, but today it reflects a long history of loss: loss of homes, neighbors, people, and sense of place. Many residents who remain continue to be faithful stewards of the land and the memory of what used to be. Bargmann and Kafka have experienced local pushback around their projects and plans. “People here think the parkland—the untouched and untended landscape—is theirs,” Bargmann said. In a way, it is.

Lead designer Julie Bargmann, ASLA, in the foreground, works out the placement of plants and materials during construction. Photo courtesy Randy Pardy/Prince Concepts.

There is a new design challenge for this master plan. How do you minimally intervene with the landscape so you can push progress? How can you help neighbors feel like this project still belongs to them, but with change? How do you incrementally change a place but in a way that remains familiar to people who have been living without change?

Image courtesy D.I.R.T. Studio.

It is a delicate dance, especially in cities with alarming racial and socioeconomic barriers, but Bargmann and Kafka have developed a relationship that allows her as a landscape architect to lead how development hits the ground. So far, Core City Park has achieved success, and the surrounding programs have integrated equity models that build a public good out of this private space. Ochre Bakery offers reduced prices for food and beverages after 4:00 p.m., a small change that democratizes café culture, but brings a diverse group of new and original Detroiters together in the woodland.

A bird’s-eye view of the park, with all of the young trees in leaf. Photo courtesy Chris Miele.

Ujijji Davis, ASLA, is a landscape architect and urban planner based in Detroit.

Project Credits

Client Prince Concepts, Detroit. Landscape Architect and Lead Designer Julie Bargmann, ASLA, D.I.R.T. Studio, Charlottesville, Virginia. Consulting Architect Ish Rafiuddin, Undecorated, Detroit. Community Participation Daisuke Hughes and Jess Hicks, Ochre Bakery and Astro Coffee, Detroit.

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