In the heart of Midtown arises a new residential development named Woodward West. We caught up with the developer, Chris Jackson, to get an update on what else he’s been up to since BLAC featured him in 2012.
The article has been edited for clarity and length. For the full interview listen to the BLAC Podcast with Chris Jackson.
BLAC Magazine: Thanks for sitting down with us today Chris. Let me jump right in with what you’re working on now. Yourecently broke ground on a project on Woodward. How did that project come about?
Chris Jackson: The name of the project you’re referencing is called Woodward West. It’s been a nine year journey from the very beginning to where we are today. The project had other names along the way. But the way that project really started was that my partner, Jim Jenkins and I were actually under construction of another development in Midtown which is a 63,000 square foot office building with Wayne State University School of Psychiatry and Neurosciences as our tenant. We wanted to keep the momentum going.
We were looking at another office building because we saw a need for Class A office space in Midtown. And interesting enough, we could not lock down a tenant for the whole building. We went after doctor groups, medical groups, some African-American doctor groups to relocate. As we went through that process it was just always hit or miss.
Three years into the project we were still moving down the road of an office building until we were at Mackinac Island. It was a conversation that Jim Jenkins had with Mayor Duggan where the Mayor asked if we had considered residential because the city was in need of more residential south of Mack Avenue. We ran some numbers and went back to our architect and we switched gears from having commercial space to residential. Our initial thought was 68 units.
The final product is now Woodward West with 204 units and 25,000 square feet of retail.
BLAC Magazine: Your company, Queen Lillian is black-owned and Detroit based. Tell me how did Queen Lillian come to be?
Chris Jackson: The history of Queen Lillian goes back almost 15 years to my original partner Don Davis. He was the chairman and CEO of First independence Bank. Don had a very interesting career in that he was also in the music industry and was a music mogul. One day Don started humming to himself. He closed his eyes and asked what my mother’s name was. I said Lillian. I asked his mother’s name. He said Queen. He said, that’s it, Queen Lillian.
We both adore our mothers. They are beautiful black Detroit women who had a strong commitment to the city of Detroit and that’s where we were in our mission to develop Detroit. And so queen Lillian became the name. Unfortunately, Don is no longer with us. Queen is no longer with us. Lillian, my mother is still alive and has witnessed a number of the Queen Lillian projects from the ground up. She still lives in the city of Detroit and she has her own Queen Lillian business card. Some people have the title of member, or founder, or CEO and president. She’s the inspiration. So the title on her business card is “inspiration”.
BLAC Magazine: That’s a cool story. I love that. I’m sure your mom must be proud. For those wondering, what high school did you graduate from?
Chris Jackson: Cass Tech. That’s another thing about this project that we’re working on, with Cass Tech being a quarter mile from the site in what used to be called the Cass Corridor. I went by this site as a kid almost every day. Never in my dreams did I think I would be building a $60 million development here.
BLAC Magazine: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Chris Jackson: I always thought it would be politics. I was a political science major at Howard University. I had an uncle who was on city council here in Detroit. His name was John Peoples. Every summer I came home to intern for my Uncle John.
BLAC Magazine: What’s on your playlist right now?
Chris Jackson: I’ve been listening to a lot of Pharaoh Sanders. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Pat Matheney is huge for me. Donald Bird has been big. I’ve been sort of into this seventies jazz thing. So if you had a lot of Donald Bird or some Coltrane, some Pharaoh Sanders, some Herbie Hancock, that’s where I’ve been pretty heavy at.
BLAC Magazine: When it’s your turn to cook, what are you making for dinner? What’s your go-to?
Chris Jackson: What I’m good at is some back to basics. I can fry some chicken. I’m great at spaghetti. I make a great salad. I’m really good at kale salad with salmon. And breakfast! I think I’m an aficionado now with granola. I make granola acai bowls with fruit. I’ve been real big into that.
BLAC Magazine: What’s a spot off the beaten path that people wouldn’t know about that you would recommend in Detroit?
Chris Jackson: I had a couple of places, but they’re no longer off the beaten path. The Griot was my spot. It’s been there forever and it’s understated. Of course, Bakers, Savannah Blue, and because I love jazz, The Dirty Dog Cafe.