Remembering Colin Hubbell, a developer, champion, and friend of Detroit
You may not have known Colin Hubbell, but his mark in Detroit’s larger downtown area continues 7 years after his death. Colin was an early Model D backer and one of the few real estate developers to invest in Midtown in the 1990s when many failed to see the opportunities in Detroit. One of his most important legacies, however, as former Model D Editor-in-Chief Clare Pfeiffer wrote, “He showed us that while so many people look at the navel and hypothesize how Detroit needs to be fixed, they haven’t got enough of it take our time. ” revel in what Detroit is doing right. “
Enjoy this memory that Clare Pfeiffer wrote when Colin passed away in August 2008.
Every day Colin Hubbell and I wanted to sit down and do the interview. We all take life and time for granted, and Colin and I had been shuffling back and forth some notes recently about a story I wanted to write. I really wanted him to read this story: Colin Hubbell’s Detroit.
Colin loved the city, and when Colin loved something or someone there was no hiding place. He gave his love generously and with much affection. Even a chance meeting with Colin guaranteed not only a flash of his great smile, but also a good, firm, warm hug. He had an endless supply.
Colin, a real estate developer with his Hubbell Group firm and a great champion of all things in Detroit, passed away last week. He was 49 years old and left a wife, Patricia (as many know Trish) and four children – Kelsey, Devin, Miles and Alana – of whom he was extremely proud.
Oh, how is he missing?
I wanted to hear Colin talk about the city – his city. He wasn’t a Pollyanna. He knew the shortcomings of the city – because he screamed loudly, he was a developer, so you know he had some frustrations, and some more with bureaucracy, investors, contractors, supply and demand. Prior to that, he worked for the city under both the Young and Archer administrations. He knew the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Still he loved Detroit blatantly. Why? Why did Colin love Detroit so much? Which places did he find sacred and what was his vision for Detroit’s future, the future of these places? I wanted to ask him. I didn’t want to write an obit. I wanted him to read this.
The end always comes too soon. But that was really too early. We all needed more time to learn from Colin because he had so much to show us to teach us. About being a businessman in Detroit. About being a Detroit About Detroit.
As a developer, Colin was tireless, fearless, visionary and successful. Almost a decade ago, he built the Canfield Lofts and placed 35 units in a historic 1921 building that was once occupied by Buick Motor Co. In 2005, just as Model D was launching, the governor joined him to cut the ribbon on townhouses near the DIA in Midtown. The townhouses at Art Center and the townhouses on Ferry Street were built when people thought you had to be out of your pumpkin to invest in Detroit, let alone Detroit real estate and let alone brand new, gorgeous townhouses.
It was never easy. Lofts @ 55 West, his last major project, opened in December 2006 with around 30 units and 6,000 square feet of retail space. Colin had a big party to kick off and it was a true who’s who of Detroit enthusiasts. But in the past year and a half we all know what has become of the real estate market: it has gone from soft to softer to muddy. 55 West is a beautiful bunch of lofts, but it was a delicate project that shows Colin’s tenacity.
Cancer? Business challenges? You would never know to see his face. He’d tell you the plain truth if you asked him, but has Colin Hubbell given up? No
What set him apart from the rest was his love for what he did, and Colin spread a lot of love for Detroit.
“Colin was absolutely fundamental to Model D,” says our co-founder and associate editor Brian Boyle. This is true. There’s a bolt of Colin Hubbell in every pixel of every character, every word, every story in every issue we publish. He was the earliest adopter of the idea Brian and Paul Schutt had for an online magazine in Detroit.
I think Colin supported Model D because he saw there was a Detroit story to be told, and Colin loved the fact that someone would tell it. He loved sharing Detroit with people. He also liked to sell them housing, but he was content to show them why the city is important and why people are important to the city.
Colin once took me, photographer Dave Krieger, and writer Bob Allen of Crains Detroit Business to show everyone what’s going on in town (we reprinted the column, read it here). There wasn’t a vacant lot between Conner and Rosa Parks that Colin had nothing to say about it. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. (Many will nod in agreement. Colin wasn’t one to withhold information. He was a great public speaker and phenomenal storyteller.) Krieger knows Detroit very well too, but no one was in the car that day who didn’t learn anything at least from Colin. He told us why this package was being developed or that one was being neglected, who was bringing a project to a standstill or why another project was so great, or why he just loved places like Cost Plus Wine in Eastern Market. Colin’s Detroit wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be. He showed us that while so many people are looking at the navel and hypothesizing how to fix Detroit, not enough of us are taking the time to indulge in what Detroit is doing right.
In the few years I’ve known Colin, I haven’t been to a festival, concert, lecture, Model D speaker series, etc. in Detroit where I haven’t got any of those coveted, cherished hugs from Colin Hubbell. He was everywhere. He was all over town – on his bike, by Trish’s side, or with the kids. Colin was at the Festival of the Arts, on the fourth Friday at Campus Martius and at the CityFest in the New Center. If there was a band and a lemonade stand, it was there. And then he lectured at the University of Detroit Mercy to happy students who could use his expertise as developers and planners. to offer his energy, expertise and talents to the WARM Training Center, Detroit Synergy and the University of Detroit Jesuit Scholarship Fund; taking his children to St. Clare of Montefalco Elementary School, U of D and Reginahigh Schools and bragging about their accomplishments; chat with his neighbors in the East English Village; and maybe every now and then by bike to the Grosse Pointe to have a coffee. He was all over town and with Trish so often – what a couple to be emulated.
At this year’s CityFest I passed both of them. We stopped and chatted. And then the Colin magnet turned on and more people stopped and chatted. Everywhere he went people wanted to talk to Colin. There was always the smile. Always the ideas. Always Detroit.
Internet honors have popped up to commemorate Colin. He has been a mentor to many of the next generation of Detroit executives, and they flood Facebook with his praise. From one post to the next there is an echo: Colin made me better. He inspired me. It brought more energy and vitality to my project. Support. Support. Support.
On Thursday, his last day, more than 275 people had turned up for a Model D speaker series in the film industry. We ended up turning people away at the door because we couldn’t squeeze in anymore. Colin and Trish signed up to be there, but he got sick. He died that evening.
Do you know how people say they will be there in spirit? I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say Colin was in that auditorium at the College for Creative Studies. It was full of energy, passion and enthusiasm. Hopes and dreams for the city were later spoken of in the atrium. You wondered what’s next? Is this the next one? How do we do it There were Metro Detroiters of all makes, models, colors, and years. The ball kept rolling as many crossed town to get to the Atwater Brewing Company, where the first Detroit Pecha Kucha Night had more than 200 people holding drinks, keeping ideas moving, energy flowing, and the ball rolled. How he would have loved all this liveliness, diversity and enthusiasm.
When Colin first started investing in Midtown in the 1990s, he had the ball – the “new Detroit,” this “next Detroit” – pretty much to himself and just a few other brave visionaries. Fortunately, he knew this wasn’t a way to play.
Maybe you never knew the guy. or maybe you were lucky enough to call him a friend. In either case, there is a surefire way to honor him. Belle Isle bicycle. Go to Jazz Fest this weekend. Buy something funky from Bureau of Urban Living. Make friends with someone who is different from you. Find out what is common. Bring your ideas together. Share. Be a part of Detroit in every way you can. Play here. Live here. Invest here. Do whatever you do best. Be part of this crazy, flawed, but oh-so-vibrant urban fabric that he loved so much.
I’ll always wish I had the chance to ask Colin what his holy places were in Detroit, but I know his favorite place was yours. He would have loved the fact that you loved something about the city. He would have enjoyed it. He would have hugged you for it, I promise you.
This story is part of “10 Years of Change,” a series celebrating the decade in which Model D was released in Detroit and the changes the city made during that time. Read other stories in the series here.