Before it was trendy, Detroit builder Julio Bateau has spent decades adding to the Midtown construction boom, with history – and people – at the top of mind.
lmost 40 years ago, Haitian-born, New York-educated and, now, Detroit-based developer Julio Bateau made a commitment to Midtown to “rebuild history.” That wasn’t the original plan, though. Graduating with a master’s degree in structural engineering, he moved to Detroit in 1978 aiming to work with the Detroit Three.
But he arrived during the city’s first major efforts to rebuild itself. The late 1970s were changing times, with storylines almost parallel to what’s going on today. Downtown was seeing a resurgence – the Renaissance Center opened a year earlier – while other areas needed help. Bateau says he realized the city was in need of some TLC right away.
“When I came here, the whole Greektown area was just vacant,” he says. “Everyone was fleeing Detroit.”
Bateau saw the beauty of the city while others saw a lost cause. “They didn’t see the big picture,” he says. His first vision was a taste of his homeland, so he set to work to build a Caribbean community center while working in the automotive industry. The Espoir Center for Caribbean Arts and Culture broke ground a few years later.
That was just the beginning. Bateau would spend the next few decades working in development and historic preservation – while keeping his day job and raising a family – in what we now know as Midtown, particularly along East Ferry Street, where his latest development, the Nailah Commons, is taking shape.
“Development should not be done to uproot people who have been there for history,” Bateau says.
Nearing completion this year, Nailah Commons is one of the final pieces to Bateau’s commitment to Detroit. The $10 million, 58-unit townhomes at East Ferry and the Chrysler service drive are upscale, he says, but will be classified as affordable housing.
Its location is intentional. The development rises near the former Hastings Street – the main thoroughfare of Paradise Valley, the black entertainment district paved over in favor of the freeway. That particular intersection, Bateau says, “is the gate to Midtown coming from the east. It was always important for me to rebuild that gate so that Midtown would have a different look.”
Most of Bateau’s developments over the years have been built with affordable housing in mind because of his strong belief that affordable housing should be a part of every community.
“It’s not just a term,” Bateau says. “It means people can actually live there with modest means.” And affordable housing needs to have the full support of state and local government, he adds. “If it’s not one of their objectives, it won’t happen.”
But building it doesn’t mean using cheap, flimsy building materials. “If it is good enough for me, then most likely it’ll be good for you,” he says.
A ‘piece of the pie’
In his mind, Bateau says a developer is more than a builder; it’s a person who takes a neighborhood, a piece of land and conceptualizes it to make it a usable space. It’s vital to have a “road map” laid out for those kinds of visions to happen, as amateur developers can easily get in over their heads.
“It’s important for me to have control,” he says. “Once you lose control of your destiny, the roads become rocky.”
Bateau says his experiences as an engineer make him stand out in the development world, but he also holds a construction license. And when it comes to financing projects, most of the time “I bring my own money.”
But, he cautions, “I don’t build to get rich. You simply do not make a lot of money doing this type of work. And if I don’t like it, I will not build it.
“Development takes time in Detroit.” Bateau adds. “My objective to build up this part of Midtown was a commitment I made 30-something years ago. Quitting was never an option.”
Now that the Nailah Commons development is coming to a close, Bateau says he’s fulfilled. “Why do I need to have another vision at this point?” He’s done everything he has wanted to accomplish and “eaten his piece of the Detroit development pie.”
His two main objectives: “Raising two amazing girls, and the other I’m about to complete. Finish what I need to do in Detroit and then go on.
“Who knows?” he laughs. “Maybe I’ll become a writer.”
JASMINE GRAHAM IS A WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY SENIOR AND FORMER BLAC DETROIT INTERN.