Over the next few months Detroitisit will be your go-to for interviews of Detroit based WeWork members. Some are natives of the city. Others were drawn here for various reasons—the city’s booming cultural story, the architecture, the excitement of opportunity, etc. All are working hard to shape the future of the city they, and we, call home.
This week we sat down with Devon Caldwell of Inkwell Partners. In 2017 he and his partner, Ryan Zampardo, left the D.C.-based development firm CRC Companies to strike out on their own. In Detroit they saw the opportunity for a new type of development model based on integrating thoughtful design with community conversations. Since Inkwell Partner’s inception they have focused on acquiring and renovating apartment buildings in the soon-to-be-next concentric circle outside of Downtown. As the city’s resurgence continues, they trust their “boots on the ground” model acts as a conduit through which local and outside investors can positively impact development—and inspire others to adopt a similar immersion based approach.
Detroitisit: Growing up in rural Maryland, how did you experience Detroit?
Devon Caldwell: I had the grand, bleak view everyone outside of the Midwest gets from stories in popular culture. I imagined vacant, bombed out buildings, with a lawless downtown, stagnant after years of neglect and decay.
DII: So what got you to want to know Detroit?
I visited for three days and that was all it took to fall in love with the city. Ryan [my business partner] grew up in the area, and that first summer I visited he certainly did his job of showing me the city’s social and physical resurgence as well the historical context and also the reality of what the surrounding neighborhoods were still experiencing.
DII: Favorite part of Detroit?
DC: It has to be the things Detroit is really known for: the creativity and positivity of the people, all kinds of diversity, and accessibility to opportunity. I moved here because one person can make a change, imagine what two can do—it’s one of the only places in the country where a couple of young developers, with limited capital, can make an immediate impact on a community. Also, the fact that every day I walk out my door it feels like I’m emerging into a new city thanks to the pace of construction, retail openings, and cultural happenings. This city just feels less claustrophobic than most because it’s so vast, the pace of life is manageable, and the people are so very friendly. And just the beauty of some of the historic neighborhoods. I get “lost” deep within certain areas of the city, finding pockets of amazing, unique architecture. In Detroit there’s always more to explore.
DII: Real talk: What’s taken some getting used to?
DC: Lack of everyday retail and terrible store hours in Downtown. In D.C., when you work past 7pm, you have any number of fast casual options to choose from for dinner. Here, you have to consciously think about leaving work early to get food, run errands, etc. Or else you’re out of luck.
DII: Is Detroit home?
DC: It certainly is close to becoming my second home. My passion for this city is real. But I have a ways to go before I’m worthy of the esteemed “Detroiter” tag. And it’s tough for Detroit to become my true home until I can convince my whole family back east to move here! That’s another aspect that’s taken some getting used to. It’s the first time I have been so far from the nest, and it is tough to be away from my parents and my siblings who both have young children.
DII: You’re a real estate developer. What motivated you?
DC: Growing up in rural Maryland, forty years ago my parents moved into an area equidistance from Baltimore and D.C.. Over the course of the time we’ve lived there—because of the proximity to those two cities—one by one, farms were gobbled up by concrete streets and subdivision expansions. McMansions and strip centers galore with the same five national retailers in each corner. I hated seeing that type of a development flow, and it stuck with me. Fast forward to Detroit, which I see as the antithesis to that. What you have here is this incredible fusion of old and new, with developers renovating buildings stocked with amazing “bones” while adding creative infill projects. Adding density where it should be, and taking advantage of what you already have. The opposite of tearing up farms for soulless spaces. That’s what we are searching for when we look for our real estate activity. We want to identify with the past and connect to that urban fabric to ensure we do the opposite of what I saw growing up in my childhood home.
DII: How will that happen?
DC: Very carefully. Our skill set is built on experiencing urban areas, we feel, more consciously than your average developer. When we walk around an area, we are paying attention to how far the buildings are set back from the street. Are there trees on the boulevard? How strong is the architectural structure? How far are the residential homes from the commercial strip? It’s this combination of these intangible ingredients, and more, that makes a great place to live and work.
DII: Real vs. perceived community needs. How do you understand and take them into consideration?
DC: We have hyper-focused on a few neighborhoods in Detroit where we see that unique mix of ingredients happening organically. In these areas, we’ve tried to reach out to as many neighbors, community groups, businesses, and stakeholders as possible. The only way you can truly identify the real needs in a community is to become a part of it, so we make a huge effort to get into the mix. That said, it’s one of the hardest parts of our job because developers don’t exactly have the best track record, and the initial reaction to us from many stakeholders is usually distrust. So, my long-winded answer is to say that the best developers, of which we strive to be, are the ones who are successful in digging down in to the real needs of the community.
DII: What’s abandoning corporate culture taught you?
DC: I’m much more comfortable executing on my own vision, and being in a position where all of the responsibility is on Ryan and me. I find myself working harder and smarter when I am self directed. You always wonder when you remove all the “structures,” of your life, what do you look like? Turns out things still work just fine, maybe better.
DII: Ten years from now, you’re looking back at Inkwell Partners and this chapter in your life. What makes you proud?
DC: Personally and professionally, what will make us proud is if what we are doing today is a springboard to broader impact we’ve had on this community. Today our goal is to own & renovate 100 units, and down the road we’d like to roll the snowball to larger developments with more complexity & creativity. We never want to become the guys who throw up cookie cutter buildings in a neighborhood that doesn’t need it. We’re about sticking true to what we got into it for. Doing projects that fit contextually within a neighborhood. The most exciting thing for me would be to walk into a bar, or some community watering hole that we’ve developed, and watch people enjoying the space as a fly on the wall.
DII: Greatest professional struggle?
DC: It’s been getting off the beaten path of type-An overachiever, always focused on doing what my teachers—and other professionals—wanted. Up until this point, I followed the path people are “supposed to go down.” I had an incredible start to my career that put me further along that path, but I really felt I could make more of an impact and personally fulfill myself by taking on new risks. That struggle ultimately led me to Detroit and I couldn’t be happier. That said, this has only been possible with a great business partner like Ryan who’s chosen to take the leap of faith with me.
DII: If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
DC: Professional soccer player.
DII: Where’d this come from? Are sports still a thing for you?
DC: My dad was my soccer coach growing up, and he let me practice with my older brother’s team, so I have very fond memories of soccer from the earliest days. Playing and following soccer has always been my favorite “hobby,” if you can call it that. I’m still very active in some of the adult leagues, and it has been one of the best ways I’ve met people around Detroit since I moved here without knowing anyone. I do really miss the turf fields and every-night-of-the-week leagues back in D.C. though! Detroit’s outdoor soccer facilities could use an upgrade . . .
DII: You get to invite one Detroiter to dinner. Past or present. Who would that be?
DC: It’s difficult because not growing up here, I’m not as familiar with the many great people who’ve been a piece of Detroit. So, it’s a bit cliché for a real estate person to say, but it’d have to be Dan Gilbert.
DII: Dinner with Dan Gilbert. What are you eating? What’s the conversation?
DC: Mexican food. We have several properties in Southwest and I’m addicted to the restaurants there – my girlfriend is from San Antonio and says the Mexican food in Detroit rivals her home town. I’d use the venue as a conversation starter to hear whether Gilbert and his development company Bedrock plan to branch out into the neighborhoods. They certainly have their hands full Downtown, so I’d probably pitch him on partnering with Inkwell so that we can bring the quality of development they’ve mastered into smaller, neighborhood-focused projects without distracting from their efforts in the city center.
DII: What’s one characteristic you like most in a person?
DC: Tough question. Probably loyalty.
DII: One you dislike?
DC: That one’s easier. Lack of self-awareness is the worst.
DII: Sun sign?
What’s a sun sign? Is that the same as horoscope? I’m a Taurus, whatever that means.
Devon. Cool guy, yeah? Inspiring, insightful—potential collaborator, perhaps? Why not share an office with him. To schedule a tour of WeWork: Detroit, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.