Tucked away, off Grand River and Warren, True North Detroit sits unassumingly almost as if it is waiting to be discovered. If you don’t know where to look as you drive by, you might miss it all together. However, once found, it’s hard to forget.
The brainchild of Philip Kafka and the product of his real estate development company Prince Concepts, True North is a haven for those seeking out something different. While visually intriguing to many, it was designed specifically for people looking to live by their own internal compasses.
The name of the development speaks to this very idea. What a compass shows isn’t actually true north. True north is the northern tip of the earth which lies in a slightly different direction. True North Detroit is for those willing to live slightly off the beaten path.
While he swears off being anything but a businessman, Philip hopes that through Prince Concepts he can do good work that will not only bring him personal success but also provide value to the people and the city of Detroit. “Prince Concepts doesn’t have a mission, it has a goal: make successful projects that evoke excitement, anticipation, and awe” Philip explains.
When he looks around at the spaces being developed today, all Philip sees is people eating in places because they are told to and living in spaces because they are new. “I want to feel things in life. I want to create spaces and projects that make people feel things,” he says.
By way of True North, Philip wants to give people the chance to feel something and discover a new way of living and communing. A native Texan, Philip believes that he has been endowed with the spirit of the last American pioneer, the cowboy. In a world where there is so little left to discover, Philip was inspired to create living spaces that he believed would give tenants the opportunity of being pioneers in their own right. “Feeling like a pioneer is a great feeling,” he says.
Back in 2012 when Philip first started coming to Detroit, he would just drive and drive and drive. “I kinda got bit by the bug I guess,” he says. “It’s like no place else in America.”
As a real estate developer, Philip saw Detroit offered something special. Unlike Dallas, Texas where he grew up and New York City where he lived, Detroit wasn’t shaped by the old and the new, but by the utopic and dystopic. In his mind, both scenarios provide unique opportunities that he was interested in tapping into.
When looking around Detroit, examples of both experiences are not too hard to find or that far apart from one another. In Midtown the Fisher building stands proudly erect in all its utopian glory. However, it is only four miles away from Philip’s well-known Corktown property, Takoi that was born out of a “not so good place” the literal meaning of dystopia.
With True North, Philip has strived to straddle both worlds. In the sunlight each of the Quonset huts looks clean and gives off a cheery, communal feeling. However, it’s impossible to forget that this community is made up of nine Quonset huts, structures inspired by World War II bunkers. Structures made to keep their occupants safe and secure.
These simple structures, with their high natural ceilings and a large area space, were physical representations of how Philip wanted to live in Detroit. By building a community of them, he hoped to find and attract other likeminded people. “You are in a sanctuary inspired space,” explains Philip. “It is really beautiful to be in a Quonset hut.”
It would seem that many other Detroiters feel the same way. Philip had no trouble finding people looking to live in an alternative space. Before even the first huts were finished he already had signed lease agreements from all his future tenants. Out of the 200-plus inquires he received, those who ended up moving in didn’t ask too many questions — they were just excited to begin living and working in a unique and inspired space.
Even those living around the project have found it to be a source of interest and pride. “I get the sense that they see it as a badge of honor,” says Philip. “They are proud of the fact that this is happening here in their neighborhood.”
However, he admits that while the development has been positively received by those that live around it, there were still a lot of unknowns. So little of the surrounding area had received attention and activity over the last few decades.
“For me, not being from here and never having done business here, there was a whole new data set that I had to consider. The kinds of things I have to think about and deal with here aren’t things I would have to think about or deal with if I had stayed in more developed cites.”
From the very beginning, Philip hoped that by building interesting structures he would not only bring the people living around them delight, but also help rejuvenate the entire neighborhood. “This is nice. This works. Why does it need to be anything more than this?” says Philip. “But what it was before? It had to be more than an overgrown lot with a bunch of garbage. It had to be. Critics should understand that.”
Although challenging at times, he has been happily surprised by how open-minded and nonjudgmental people have been toward the project. No matter if they are from the city or the suburbs Philip gets the same questions from those passing by: Are these houses? Even that big one? That’s cool.
“It’s equally exotic to everyone,” he says.
Philip hopes that this is just the beginning of what will be a larger development project that spans the rest of the eight acres and eight buildings Prince Concepts owns in the area. He believes that True North can be an example for others who want to make interesting things happen here.
Walking around each of the units Philip’s face lights up in a way only someone who fully believes in a project can. “Do you like it?” he asks. “It’s different, right?”