Detroit, MI: Sugar Hill Arts District

Light projections on a large brick building including the words Sugar Hill Arts District
Photo courtesy of Midtown Detroit, Inc.

How can public art be used to revitalize an inner city neighborhood?

Even though Sugar Hill is centrally located in Midtown Detroit and has a storied history as an arts and entertainment district, over the years the area has become associated more with parking and its in-between spaces than as a place unto itself. Thanks to a five-year landscape arts masterplan that is positioned to reshape the district as a cultural destination, this perception has begun to change.


Sugar Hill is a two-block district in Midtown Detroit, surrounded by the Detroit Medical Center, Wayne State University, and several cultural institutions, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Historical Museum, and the Detroit Public Library. Immediately to the south is the office of the University Cultural Center Association (now Midtown Detroit Inc., or MDI), which was formed in 1976 as a consortium of more than 60 organizations committed to enhancing the cultural life of Midtown Detroit. Presently, Sugar Hill is home to a combination of residential, mixed-use, and arts-related businesses. However, despite its central location, surface-level parking lots and vacant properties define much of its current landscape.


Despite its small size, Sugar Hill has an impressive history. Throughout the first part of the 20th century, it was one of the only neighborhoods in the city where African American and white musicians and patrons could co-mingle. In recognition of this, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. While Sugar Hill has become less known for its arts and entertainment, they are still prevalent in nearby Midtown venues. The surrounding Midtown itself is also a significant regional magnet, drawing nearly two million visitors to its institutions and events, caring for 2.5 million patients at its medical facilities, employing 32,000 people, and educating 35,000 more. The large number of people coming in and out of the area is especially impressive considering Midtown’s own population: 18,000.


Though Sugar Hill sits squarely in the middle of this activity, in the past it has tended to be used more for parking than as an actual destination. Seeing the economic development opportunities driven by the arts in adjacent neighborhoods, MDI decided to host a series of meetings for Sugar Hill residents to hear their thoughts about the potential for highlighting the area’s art and cultural heritage as a way to attract visitors and economic stimulus. Residents and stakeholders also discussed the need to address the area’s current land use, transforming what many outsiders regarded as leftover spaces into a vibrant public domain and to develop a district plan to guide future changes.


MDI envisioned a Sugar Hill district with public art and landscape designs that would transform it from a hodgepodge of parking lots and disjointed buildings into a cohesive, vibrant neighborhood. In wanting to help direct the development of the public right-of-way and streetscapes and to create a more visually coherent identity, the organization developed a five-year “Landscape Arts Masterplan” that articulated a strategy for the role of art in stimulating cultural and economic development in the district. “It was our goal,” explained Susan Morey, President of MDI, “to create a design that helped to expand the array of activities that could occur within this district, and at the same time invite exploration.”


The project was initiated and directed by the nonprofit planning and development organization MDI. As a consortium of over 60 members representing the area’s academic, cultural, medical, and service institutions, it had abundant critical partnerships already built into its structure and a web of community-based relationships in place. In partnership with MDI, the City of Detroit played an active role in helping to establish the local historic district for the area. The City also provided funding for a district parking garage and mixed-use development in the area. During the same planning timeframe, the district’s largest cultural tenant, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), also became a strong partner in shaping the plan by initiating its own process to develop the public space surrounding their facility. This design project allowed the two initiatives to develop more synergistic outcomes and shape a more impactful district vision. MDI did the initial planning and site documentation and Cambridge- based landscape firm Stoss conceived the landscape arts design strategy.


MDI performed a comprehensive environmental assessment, taking stock of the district’s architectural, economic, and environmental landscape as it existed at the project’s outset. Not only did the firm perform site surveys, they also completed extensive interviews with residents and business owners, getting a sense of how the district operates. The firm integrated its findings with an area masterplan by architecture firm Albert Kahn and Associates from 2007 that considered midtown Detroit more broadly. Stoss then took these findings as the point of departure for design work. The planning and design process took 14 months, from start to finish. As part of the work/research, Stoss hired Detroit design firm M1/DTW to develop a graphic identity for the new district. MDI oversaw the creation of an organizational entity, the Sugar Hill Arts District, meant to administrate the process. MDI and the other partners worked closely with the community, holding regular meetings at MOCAD and communicating developments on websites, in newsletters, and on social media.


One of the main outcomes of the project was the comprehensive landscape arts masterplan produced by Stoss, which will be used to direct future developments in the Sugar Hill Arts District. The masterplan outlines a palette of landscape materials and elements, including paving, vegetation, furniture, lighting, and sustainability features. Opportunities for temporary and permanent public art pieces are highlighted. During the planning and design process for the masterplan, organizers commissioned a temporary public art project, Light-Lot, as part of a citywide art festival, DLECTRICITY. The temporary installation is a series of seven chain link fenced enclosures that activate an important corner lot (currently a church parking lot) and provide much needed lighting in evening hours. The fencing is interwoven with blue and silver webbing that shimmers when hit by car headlights. Over the two-day festival, the event brought 75,000 visitors to Midtown Detroit, including a block party hosted in Sugar Hill. The installation will be removed in late 2014. Plans for the larger district are slated up to be carried out over five years, with many of the physical changes rolling out in phases. The first alley project is slated to begin shortly after construction documents are completed in 2014.


Already there is considerable momentum in the shared commitment to improving the district, and the planning process has enabled many residents and business owners to become partners as the project moves forward. These investments include the MOCAD public space plan and new arts and culture businesses moving to the area. To the delight of the project team, the moniker “Sugar Hill” has also now become adopted by many in the area; something which the team attributes to the success of the master planning process in creating a shared sense of identity for the neighborhood.


The Sugar Hill Arts District: Utilizing Placemaking to Create a Better Future for Detroit
Blog Post by New Economy Initiative

Sugar Hill Landscape Arts Masterplan
Masterplan document

Art X Detroit: Kresge Arts Experience
A 5-day multidisciplinary celebration that presents works created by Kresge Eminent Artists and Fellows

  • Midtown Detroit, Inc.
  • The Kresge Foundation
  • ArtPlace America
  • Inn on Ferry Street