Design Center in a Box competition seeks to use local talent to reactivate empty commercial spaces

Design Center in a Box competition seeks to use local talent to reactivate empty commercial spaces

You’ve seen them and sometimes turned your head in disgust as you walked by. Empty Detroit storefronts – sometimes with posters in the windows and sometimes all you see is just dirty windows. No matter what, they’re ugly.

Well, the City of Detroit’s Planning and Development Department has a plan to use local talent to help reactivate those vacant storefronts and improve spaces for community design and neighborhood development,

It’s a competition called Design Center in a Box and is funded by Knight Foundation, in partnership with City and Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

Designers are asked to transform an average vacant commercial storefront, like those found along Detroit’s most active commercial corridors, into community gathering spaces where residents can discuss ongoing planning and design efforts in their neighborhoods.

The main three objectives of the competition are to:

  • Improve the spaces where community design discussion takes place in Detroit neighborhoods
  • Create opportunity for property owners to activate vacant storefronts in Detroit commercial corridors

“The Design Center in a Box competition will rehabilitate and activate vacant storefronts in Detroit in a way that engages our neighborhoods,” says Maurice Cox, director of the Planning and Development Department. “These storefronts will become community gathering spaces for residents to engage in the planning and design of their neighborhoods.”

Launched in mid-May, the competition is seeking submissions to create high-quality spaces in Detroit’s neighborhood commercial corridors. All applications must be submitted by email to designcenterinabox@detroitmi.govby 11:59 p.m. EST, Sunday, June 24.

The competition targets local and regional design talent, with the goal of building opportunity in Detroit for Detroiters and those with roots in Michigan.

“Design Center in a Box uniquely connects emerging designers with community residents through designing and constructing inspiring spaces for all to use,” says Dan Pitera, executive director for Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

The competition is open to teams of designers, artists, and architects.

Here are the requirements:

  • Team lead was born, raised, or educated in Michigan or previously held academic position or is currently based in Michigan
  • Team demonstrates a commitment to and capability of execution, from design to fabrication and final installation within the provided timeline

Teams may be comprised of individuals with separate or shared professional affiliations, or none at all. Emerging design practices wishing to pivot toward community design, young architects looking to form new collaborations, or artists seeking to engage public conversation are encouraged to apply.

The application includes a three-page Project Team Summary and a design concept board with layout of visual and written materials conveying the design concept.

In Stage 2 after finalist teams are identified, the Planning & Development Department will work with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation to select two storefronts for Design Center in a Box installation. Finalist teams will be selected by June 28.

In Stage 2, constructability, timeline, and budget will be evaluated in conjunction with strength of concept. Teams will present their final design at a public event in Detroit on August 1. Each team will make a 10-minute presentation followed by a 20-minute Q&A period from the public and design jury.

Following the presentation event, the design jury will select two winning teams to progress to Stage 3. These teams will each receive a $40,000 stipend for detailing, fabrication and installation of their design in a confirmed site location.

Following the jury selection, winning teams will meet with competition administrators to review their projects and enter into agreements install the proposed designs within the final sites.

In Stage 3 winning teams will be given access to a construction manager hired by the competition administrators to coordinate site access and facilitate interaction with the property owner as needed.

The competition will be judged by a panel of local and national architects, designers and builders including:

  • Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, principal, Marlon Blackwell Architects
  • Lawrence Scarpa, FAIA, partner, Brooks +Scarpa
  • James Singleton, architect, senior owner’s rep, IFF
  • Georgeen Theodore, partner and co-founder, Interboro

Design Center in a Box is a collaboration between the City of Detroit Planning & Development Department and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center at University of Detroit Mercy, with support from partnering organizations. It is funded by the Knight Foundation through a $205,000 grant from the Knight Cities Challenge.

Interested parties can find more information at where they can connect with competition administrators and download the competition brief. All applications must be submitted by email to by 11:59 p.m. EST, Sunday, June 24. 


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