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Developers Fight Pessimism

Single-family homes sprout in Victoria Park, like flowers in a place nature once forgot

READING carefully on a path of brown paper laid over new carpeting, Lucinda Lienan shows off the house she's just built. Two stories. Three bedrooms. Two-car garage. Spacious kitchen.

``This has all the amenities that a home out in the suburbs would have,'' the builder says.

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But it's not in the suburbs. It's here in the city of Detroit. What was once a drug- and crime-infested area has become a new subdivision of single-family homes, called Victoria Park. It is the first such subdivision to go up in Detroit in more than 30 years.

Victoria Park had many skeptics at first. ``I had no support from my peers, my friends,'' Ms. Lienan recalls. They said: `` `You've got to be crazy. Why are you doing that?' ''

But Lienan's optimism turned out to be right. The first phase of nearly 160 homes has already sold out. Developers are clearing land for the project's second phase, which has generated waiting lists of interested buyers. There are even plans for a third phase.

``There's a lot of pessimism [about Detroit], but I think it's from the outside looking in,'' says Gail Davis, another builder here. Most of the people who snapped up the $115,000 to $200,000 houses already lived in the city.

In many cases, they are city employees, such as policemen or teachers, who are required to live in Detroit. In other cases, they are professionals looking for a house near the city center.

The initial success of Victoria Park is a visible boost to a city that badly needs it. During his long tenure, retiring Mayor Coleman Young concentrated on big developments: attracting new factories to the city or rebuilding the downtown. Neighborhood development got little support.

``It brought jobs to the city, but it cost a lot for the city to bring in those jobs and often exchanged neighborhoods for industrial plants,'' says Lyke Thompson, a political science professor at Wayne State University.

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The Victoria Park project by itself won't turn Detroit around. The city still tears down more abandoned houses than it issues permits for new ones. During the 1980s, the city issued a total of 55 construction permits for single-family houses. There were no such permits issued in 1990.

But that number is now on the rebound. Last year, the city issued 163 single-family housing permits and it may surpass that number this year.

``Detroit will never be what it once was,'' says Donn Shelton, spokesman for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. But ``there are signs that the city is turning around.''

He points to the recent announcement by Farmer Jack/A&P - the only major supermarket chain that operates in the city - to open two new Detroit stores by 1995. Little Caesars has moved its world headquarters from the suburbs into the city.

Victoria Park has also been a boost to the careers of Lienan and Ms. Davis. Lienan, who up to now had done interior remodeling work, says a new woman builder would not have been given the financing to put up new homes in the suburbs.

But because the city insisted on diversity of builders - and Standard Federal Bank was willing to back her - she has finally gotten the opportunity to build new homes. That financial support is even more noteworthy in Davis's case, since she was living on welfare until 2 1/2 years ago.

She went through a self-employment program, then began remodeling homes in Detroit. When Victoria Park came along, she jumped at the chance to build houses. Between them, the two women already have eight houses either finished or under construction. They plan to put up more in the next phase of Victoria Park.

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