A ‘Happy,’ Hopeful Place: How developers transformed notorious east side apartments

A ‘Happy,’ Hopeful Place: How developers transformed notorious east side apartments

It had been quite some time since Sakina Smith and her children felt comfortable going home.

They were among the many residents of the Colony and Fisher Arms apartments, an East Jefferson Avenue landmark that became known around Detroit as a destination to avoid. Suspected drug dealers and other loiterers held court at all hours on the sidewalks outside the cavernous complex were a common sight. Inside, break-ins, even murders, had been committed.


Investors often fear residential involvement will ramp-up costs or even halt development plans, especially in crime- and poverty-ridden areas. Such is not the case with the $24 million renovation of the 161-unit former Colony and Fisher Arms Apartments into the River Crest Apartments. The project proves banks will finance higher-risk affordable housing developments when they see evidence of residential alignment behind socially responsible development goals and property improvements like secure parking lots, cameras and security equipment. 

Development: River Crest Apartments, a $24 million renovation of 161 affordable housing apartments
along the East Jefferson Avenue corridor.
Developer: Cinnaire and Chesapeake Community Advisors
Financing: Provided by HUD, MSHDA and Huntington National Bank
Tax Credits:  Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits
Other: FHA loan and Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis Affordable Housing Program Funds

A 2013 Curbed Detroit article, “The Colony Arms Might be Detroit’s Worst Apartment Building,” written for the national neighborhoods and real estate site, Curbed.com, described it as “the east side hellhole you’ve probably never heard of.”

The article further went on to detail a widely publicized police raid in which more than 100 officers descended on the building and made numerous arrests. The enforcement marked a turning point at which Cinnaire, a Michigan-based community development financial institution launched an operation of its own. Today, Smith’s family lives in the newly christened River Crest Apartments, Section 8 homes that prove anything’s possible with the right vision for neighborhood transformation.

“Everything is better,” Smith says. “The apartment. The atmosphere. The environment. The staff. It has been a blessing.”

“We feel safe,” she adds. “We can finally sleep good at night.”

Cinnaire president and CEO Mark McDaniel‘s investment risk is now reaping dividends.

But the journey of the 93-year-old Colony Arms from “hellhole” to what Mark McDaniel, Cinnaire president and CEO, calls “a happy, hopeful place to live” involved peaks and valleys. The day of the police raid was the same day Cinnaire received tax credits to develop the three-building property.

“My phone’s ringing. ‘Turn the TV on!’” McDaniel recalls. “‘Didn’t you just buy this building?’”

While Cinnaire’s mission addresses challenges of community stabilization through partnering with investors and neighborhood organizations, the company hadn’t yet secured all the financing it needed for the task of renovating Colony Arms.

Once luxury properties a short distance from Manoogian Mansion, the former Puritan, Pilgrim and Plymouth Apartments had plummeted in property value and visual appeal. It would take strong salesmanship to persuade potential funders that a former crime magnet was worthy of renovating. At stake were 161 historic units and their affordable-living status.

Residents Tammy Clay, Sherman Jones, and Jessie Gillam pose in renovated Colony and Fisher Arms Apartments, now branded River Crest Apartments.

“We weren’t socially motivated as a giveaway program, because we’ve got to make money like everybody else, but we were willing to take the risk,” says McDaniel.

Fortunately for Smith and Alfonso Gumbs, among many residents who’d witnessed the steep decline, Cinnaire was able to persuade banks to support the effort.

“Everybody feels safe in here now,” says Gumbs, a 20-year resident who emigrated from the Virgin Islands. “They continue to improve the building for us. We gotta be happy to be here.”

For many longtime residents of the area surrounding the former Colony Arms, a “Now Leasing” sign on the building seemed a peculiar site. Developers added a gated parking lot, enclosed the courtyard entrances from East Jefferson, and installed surveillance equipment. Improving the property management was a primary move in making River Crest safe and livable.

River Crest Apartments, Section 8 homes, prove anything’s possible with the right vision for neighborhood transformation.

Owners often “have no real appreciation of what goes into property management,” McDaniel says.

Other basic improvements to the buildings’ common areas and individual units were also part of the makeover.

Mayor Mike Duggan joined developers at the announcement of the property’s re-opening as River Crest. “When you look at what the team from Cinnaire has done with much stronger management, renovation, secure parking lots, cameras and security systems,” he says, “it is a completely different place.”

Once fearful of crime at the complex, Sakina Smith is proud to call the renovated River Crest Apartments home.

The sidewalks and corridors outside River Crest appear clean now, showing no sign of activities that previously occurred there.

“We have a couple of people who’ve lived there for 30 years, so they’ve seen it all,” McDaniel adds. “It’s a great story for what can be done with a socially motivated owner.”

Gumbs remembers times he looked over his shoulder to make sure no one attacked him on his way into his apartment. Now, he’s more likely to look over his shoulder to greet a neighbor across the hall.

“We are blessed,” he says. “I am telling you, we are blessed. We got a good place to stay.”

Photos by Paul Engstrom

See additional Live Love Detroit coverage from TheHUB:

Introducing “The Map:” TheHUB’s exclusive guide to what and where investment is happening in Detroit

TheHUB launches year-long, in-depth report on neighborhood-specific investments

Development leaders discuss the importance of protecting and investing in Detroit’s neighborhoods

It takes a Village: Woodward Village thrives with families

Ripe market and programs encourage home ownership and investing in Detroit

A ‘Happy,’ HopefulPlace: How developers transformed notorious east side apartments

Jefferson East Inc. promotes affordable housing in high-rent district


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