Angel Gambino: The Ultimate Early Adopter Sets Her Sights on Detroit

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residence. To say restoring it would be a labor of love is an understatement.

But Gambino wanted it, and it was shortly after she put her bid in that she found herself on a plane heading to New York City. It was one of those flights from hell, where she was delayed for an hour on the tarmac both leaving Detroit and arriving in New York. She struck up a conversation with a gentleman seated in her row, who turned out to be Scott Griffin.

Griffin, who has spent the bulk of his career producing for film director Robert Altman and playwright Arthur Miller, was on his way back home after … ready for this? Placing a bid on the Roosevelt Hotel.

Though he was (and still is, until he finds a permanent address in Detroit) a resident of the famed Chelsea Hotel in New York, Griffin had been enticed to Detroit by a friend who wouldn’t shut up about the investment opportunities here.

Griffin and Gambino had practically no choice but to keep talking during the many flight delays, and when she began describing her vision for what she wanted to do with the Roosevelt, Griffin came clean that he was the person on the other end of the bidding war.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Gambino says. “Of all people, I’m sitting next to my competition.”

[I'd like to take a moment to point out that this kind of serendipity is a regular occurrence in Detroit, and part of what makes the city so special. It's partly magic and partly a function of Detroit being, in many ways, the world's biggest small town.]

Gambino had a driver waiting for her at the airport in New York, and she insisted on giving Griffin a ride to the Chelsea. Along the way, they stopped to see a friend of Gambino’s who is also a Detroit native to tell her about the amazing coincidence, but it turned out Gambino’s friend and Griffin had a mutual best friend and already knew each other. “It was an instant credibility check,” Gambino says. “We met at the Chelsea the next day and decided to go into business together.”

After they couldn’t agree on terms with the Roosevelt’s owner, they decided to focus on the building at 2051 Rosa Parks, a building so plain and 1980s office blah that, in the dozens of times I’ve driven past it, I’ve never given it a second glance.

The 100,000-square-foot building was once a brass foundry that, among other things, made bullets. It’s wrapped around a 19th century house that was built by one of the founders of the Detroit Institute of Arts. It has sky-high ceilings and a maze-like structure that seems to never end. By the 1970s, the foundry had begun to fail so the building was sold. In the ’80s, it was transformed into industrial office space. Developers added drop ceilings and neutral colors so that today it looks like, as Griffin says, “any doctor’s office in Toledo, Ohio.”

Gambino and Griffin are currently in the process of undressing the property to get rid of the “improvements” that buried its original architecture, with plans to eventually install a two-story window facing Rosa Parks that will allow passersby to peek in and see part of the facade of the original 19th century structure. The building also has a sprawling roof that they envision will be a perfect spot for gardens and to hold gatherings. Additional features include glassed-in loading bays with a view of Central Station, Detroit’s most famous urban ruin, that seem ready-made for a restaurant; and flexible spaces that could be used to host receptions like the one that was recently held for the nonprofit THAW, where luminaries such as Gov. Snyder were in attendance.

“On the retail side, I want to focus on existing entrepreneurs,” Gambino says. “I want the suburbanites who are coming in to eat at Slow’s to have more to do so they’ll consider staying and reversing the migration trend.”

Gambino says she and Griffin are considering a number of different models for attracting entrepreneurs to the space, including offering leases that start at $12 per square foot, sharing services, or offering access to capital, whether it’s their own money or that of angel investors they introduce to prospective tenants. Already, the Detroit outposts of Curbed and the Huffington Post have leased space in the building, along with Loveland Technologies and Detroit Soup. The space may one day house the Corktown Cinema or that boutique hotel Gambino still dreams of opening. The only thing set in stone is that Gambino plans for 2051 Rosa Parks to be the first step in her plan to change the face of Corktown by “creating a demand that leads to density” and sustainable revitalization.

“I tell people that Detroit, in its heyday, was like Silicon Valley—an epicenter of technology, scalable innovation, and velocity,” Gambino says. “It still has a combination of engineering talent, creative talent, and core tech talent that are the essential ingredients not just for a comeback, but for an eclipse.”

Gambino feels like she and Griffin are merely early adopters, and that Detroit will one day be a model for what’s possible for an post-industrial American city in a world where the United States is no longer the dominant economic power.

“Some say Detroit was the first city to fail,” Griffin adds, “but I think it will be the first industrial city to succeed again. My standard line is that Detroit is the next New York City, and China is the next Detroit. There’s lightning in a bottle here, and things are moving fast.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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