Philip Kafka, president and founder of the Detroit-based real estate development company Prince Concepts, is creating inspirational and sensitive spaces with his unique vision for Detroit.
By Hannah Owen
Photography courtesy Prince Concepts
“There’s very few cities that have a myth,” says Philip Kafka, president of Prince Concepts, a real estate development company based in the Core City neighborhood in Detroit. “If it doesn’t have myth, it’s not interesting to me.”
Kafka founded Prince Concepts to create inspired spaces that are sensitive to the needs of residents. From the Thai-inspired restaurant Takoi, to a work-in-progress called the Caterpillar, a series of apartments inside a large Quonset hut, Kafka’s vision for Detroit architecture is coming to fruition.
Kafka, who lives in Detroit, says he loves the city because it has an interesting story.
“You have great diversity here, you have a rich history, you have amazing infrastructure, you have international relevance,” Kafka says. “You have a complicated history that gives it sort of a mystique and an edge as well.”
It’s this mystique that moved Kafka, 32, to sell his New York-based billboard company, Prince Media, and come to Detroit in 2015 to make his ideas a reality.
Transforming an Abandoned Garage into Takoi
Kafka’s first project in Detroit was the redevelopment of an abandoned auto garage on Michigan Avenue that would become Takoi, a hip, Thai-inspired restaurant.
The chef he partnered with to develop Takoi, Brad Greenhill, was selling Thai food from his food truck, which he wanted to transform into a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Kafka also worked with Detroit-based architect Ishtiaq Rafiuddin on the design of the building.
“His attention to detail, his creativity — Ish never leaves me wanting for more,” Kafka says.
Rafiuddin says when they were designing Takoi, they tried to be as resourceful as possible in order “to get the best impact with the least amount of design decisions.”
Before they began construction, he says the building had three walls and a roof caving in.
“When we replaced the roof, we decided to do all the natural lighting from the roof,” Rafiuddin says.
The Journey to True North
Kafka says natural light and volume are imperative to having an “inspired” space. When you find yourself in spaces that have these two elements, he says, “you feel like you’re somewhere very generous, very pure, very inspired.”
He adds that the Quonset huts that make up True North, a live-work community with 10 rental units along 16th and Hancock Street, embody both of these elements in a way that is affordable to manufacture and live in.
“Quonset huts were an affordable way for me to be able to give people inspired space,” he says. “I don’t want to create inspired space that nobody can afford.”
Quonset huts are prefabricated structures first manufactured in the United States for military use during World War II. Kafka says he likes that there is an aspect of toughness to Quonset huts: “They fit right into the myth of Detroit.”
Samantha B. Schefman, a resident of True North, says she moved there because she “wanted something special and inspiring.”
Schefman, co-founder of Playground Detroit, says she enjoys the privacy and quietness of her Quonset hut, as well as the natural light. Schefman, 32, adds that she appreciates the “array of community activities” at True North.
A group called The Collective at True North offers daily yoga classes and other self-care events that are open to the public.
True North won The Architect’s Newspaper 2017 Best of Design Award for a residential multi-unit development, an honorable mention in Architect magazine’s 2017 Progressive Architecture Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize.
Prince Concepts is not stopping there. Kafka has several other projects underway.
An Office Fit for a Prince
“We just finished renovating about 22,000 feet of old industrial space which is where my office is,” Kafka says. The building on Grand River Avenue includes a law firm, advertising agency, bakery, jewelry designer, coffee roaster and commercial kitchen.
Ben Bator is the chief innovation officer of Lafayette American, the ad agency that sits below Prince Concepts, and has done branding for a few of the company’s projects. Bator says he enjoys working with Kafka.
“It’s fun to work with someone who is visionary and has such a unique point of view and can actually execute it,” Bator says. “The work ethic plus vision is pretty remarkable.”
He says Core City will be a space to watch, and he hopes as Prince Concepts continues to build, it will create a new norm for how developments are built in Core City that reflects thoughtful projects.
Transforming Core City
Right outside the building that houses Prince Concepts, Kafka is also developing an 8,000-square-foot Core City Park. He says his company is also in the midst of partnering with chef Greenhill to create Magnet, an old garage that is being converted into a restaurant in Core City.
After the city went through hardships in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Kafka says “Core City was a neighborhood initiative to try to rebrand the neighborhood and get it back on its feet.” He chose the area because of its story and has no interest in going where other developers in Detroit are flocking.
“We’re off-the-beaten-path,” Kafka says. “There’s no other development happening here except for us. We don’t think about demand, we think about, how do we inspire people to want to be in a certain place? How do we inspire people to want to live better?”
What he cares about, he says, is being somewhere that the residents can appreciate the work Prince Concepts is doing. “I want to be sensitive to their needs, sensitive to their sensibilities and I just want to build my ideas,” he says.
Creating the Caterpillar
Kafka is also working on another Quonset hut project with Rafiuddin called the Caterpillar, which will be an eight-unit housing structure located on 16th Street.
“Our thesis for Caterpillar is kind of the complete opposite of (True North), which is that we’re doing eight units in one Quonset hut,” Rafiuddin says. “The way I describe it is that it’s kind of like a sushi roll…each unit is like a piece of a sushi roll, where the hut is the entire roll.”
The Caterpillar will also include an indoor/outdoor communal space and feature 23-foot-tall ceilings. “We’re giving people a very unique, almost cathedral-like spaces,” he says, “which are unprecedented and unavailable aside from True North, but I think that this is a little more grand in terms of size.”
5K on the Way
Another space Rafiuddin will be working on with Kafka called 5K, a 13,500-square-foot abandoned supermarket on Grand River Avenue that Prince Concepts is converting into eight apartments and three commercial spaces.
Rafiuddin says natural light will be provided to the building through the use of a courtyard in the center of the structure. Similar to Takoi, he explains it’s designed around an idea of “urban living.”
“I think space has the ability to inspire people and illuminate the way they think about their life and themselves,” Kafka says.
Sam Hamburger, director of acquisitions at the real estate firm Bedrock Detroit, says Kafka provides a “product that people don’t know they want yet.”
The innovative residential concepts created by Prince Concepts are “more artful than economical,” yet “an amazing thing for the city,” Hamburger says.
Kafka is a strong believer that a good idea can go a long way.
“We are a real estate company that starts with an idea first,” he says. “Not a piece of property, not a proforma, we start with an idea.”
It all stems from wanting to create places that inspire people in Detroit: the city with a myth.
“Even though Detroit’s myth incorporates some negative components of a rough history, it has a myth,” Kafka says. “Its rise, its fall, its values, its lack of values, its diversity, its segregation — Detroit has all the elements that make a place interesting.”