Ever so slowly, Detroit coaxes suburbanites back in town

Two weeks ago Stephen Stewart left the suburbs and bought a house in Detroit. Here, that's an encouraging sign. A few wide and lonely blocks to the south, the refurbished Hotel St. Regis serves up Sunday brunch for $8.95. Though people come from as far away as Grosse Pointe, Mich., many of the customers are nearby residents. That, too, is an encouraging sign.

Walk - or drive - around the streets of the Motor City, and one thing becomes quite clear. Detroit's downtown and near downtown are in search of a middle and upper class. Population erosion is not unusual for older, industrial cities, and many argue that revitalization doesn't depend on reversing it. Still, the loss of residents has served as a signal that Detroit must become attractive again.

''It's very easy to forget how dynamic Detroit was in this century,'' says Robert Swartz, chairman of the geography and urban-planning department at Wayne State University. ''We were an extraordinarily rich metropolitan city.''

Impeccably dressed, Robert Gregory winds his way through the clutter of a half-finished condominium. Five years ago, he says, this near-downtown neighborhood was so decayed that the alleys were clogged with weeds and trash. Employees at the nearby General Motors headquarters didn't venture far on foot. A junkyard company occupied the land where the condominiums now stand.

Mr. Gregory heads a $50 million effort, led by General Motors, which is changing that. A major chunk of the project, called New Center Commons, is devoted to market-rate housing - 100 refurbished town houses and single-family homes, 175 rehabilitated apartment units, and 33 new condominiums in its first phase. Of the 70 or so houses and town houses ready for sale, 55 have been snapped up. New Center is one of two anchors of hope for this beleaguered city.

The other anchor lies 31/2 miles south, in the heart of downtown Detroit, where a cluster of urban projects is in the works.

Developers have had long-standing doubts about building new housing in Detroit for middle- and upper-income families, says Robert E. McCabe, president of a business coalition called Detroit Renaissance. And by themselves, the new projects won't revitalize the city.

''We're just in a survival situation, basically,'' admits Marcus Loper, deputy director of the city planning commission. Some planners estimate that 10, 000 downtown housing units would be needed for a real revival.

Still, public and private officials are encouraged by Trolley Plaza, a mixed-use project that opened two years ago with more than 300 market-rate housing units and is now filled. (A mixed-use project is one that combines at least three different uses of space, be it hotel, retail, office, or residential.) The hope is that successes at Trolley Plaza and at the other projects will encourage more development. Other market-rate projects include:

* The Riverfront apartments project, due to open next spring, providing more than 600 rental units.

* The Stroh Brewery Company design of a $40 million mixed-use project around its riverfront headquarters, including some 185 to 200 housing units at market rate. Work is scheduled to begin within two months.

* A proposed $71 million mixed-use project, called Millender Center, which would add 333 apartment units.

* The American Natural Resources Company plan for an approximately $180 million development, providing, among other things, about 1,000 rental and condominium residential units.

Admittedly, it is one thing to build housing or commercial space and quite another to fill it, as Detroiters learned the hard way with Renaissance Center, a glitzy $357 million project that has lost money ever since it opened six years ago. And developers nationwide find that the residential component of mixed-use projects is the most difficult to develop, says Stuart Rogel, a research associate with the Urban Land Institute.

Then, too, the suburbs have lured away businesses and middle- and upper-income families, leaving a city populated mainly by the poor and unemployed. In the late '70s, Detroit ranked high in median household income, but by 1981 it was virtually tied for second-poorest among the 30 largest cities.

One positive shift for this city would be a national economic upturn, but Detroiters say they haven't felt it yet. For three years in a row, greater Detroit has had the highest annual unemployment rate of the 20 largest metropolitan areas.

Ultimate success may depend on how well Detroit deals with its image problem - mentioned again and again in interviews with public and private officials. Rightly or wrongly, this city is still perceived as a dangerous, depressed community.

Mr. Stewart dangles his legs from a stoop at one edge of New Center Commons. ''People my parents age who live out in the suburbs don't understand,'' he says, peering down a street of refurbished houses. ''I don't consider this a risk at all. I think this is going to be a real neighborhood.''

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