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Sharon Madison on her family's early Detroit real estate bet - and how it's paying off

Sharon Madison and her family bet big on downtown Detroit when few others would. Now the building that bears her father’s name is reaping the dividends.

Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

As soon as you enter the lobby of the century-old structure at 1420 Washington Blvd., there’s evidence of what elders often called a strong foundation.

Seated behind the reception desk in the downtown Detroit building, greeting visitors and answering phones, is Mildred R. Madison, the 90-year-old silver-haired matriarch whose zeal for a quality education for her children helped lead to college prep courses and integrated schools in Cleveland. Her late husband, architect-planner-developer Julian C. Madison, bought this building in 1987, and now their daughter, Sharon, is running it.

“She was 1 year old when her father bought our first building. She came at the time we were first starting” to build the business in Cleveland, Mildred explains. As they got older, Sharon and her brother Julian would accompany their father to work, and, by age 12, Sharon had her first drafting table.

“She was pretty much like an apprentice.”

 

Dad’s philosophy – entrepreneurship, knowing how to negotiate and being prepared to navigate racism – wraps around the lobby, in the form of a mural that another sibling, Roberta, created based on a 1983 interview with her father. The black-and-white work weaves in the legacy of a grandfather who was the first black civil engineer to work for the federal government, her rendering of the patriarch and photos of Detroit landmarks, including the People Mover and the Lodge Freeway.

It was Sharon – a graduate of the University of Michigan who spent her summers at Interlochen – who recommended the Albert Kahn-designed structure, which used to house a furniture store, to her father as a potential investment. Now his name is on the building.

On a recent weekday, the stylish CEO Sharon, clad in a jazzy jacket, pantsuit and sneakers, was navigating various reconstruction projects taking place across the building’s 73,000 square feet, chatting with one of the building’s new tenants and discussing the need to replace a boiler.

“It’s good dealing with people of an engineering background,” notes the supplier, as Sharon smiles and nods.

The space she’s occupying is part of a narrowed focus for Sharon the urban planner and entrepreneur who, with her father as leaders of Madison and Madison International and M2 International, helped design or manage some of the biggest projects in the region and country. That ranges from serving as project construction managers at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for 16 years to the recent design of the Professional Schools Building at Dillard University in New Orleans.

It’s a legacy that sometimes gets lost in the hyperbolic world of Gilbertville and renewed interest in Detroit’s redevelopment.

 

The Madison imprint started in the late 1980s, when many thought Detroit was un-developing, and never left. And Sharon is just as fiercely independent, driven and community-centered as her father.

“What’s always concerned me is that in communities of color, the beauty of the space is not really addressed,” she says. “Look at downtown … that beauty has always been there, but if we could just see it and allow it to come out. I see that in spaces, too: If we could just allow that to come out.”

The Madisons were among a small group of boosters who had a vision for the area in the late 1980s. Shortly after they purchased the site on Washington as well as the adjoining parking lot, the Book-Cadillac Hotel and other significant businesses closed up shop. Two years after that, her father died.

“I kept trying to figure out: How do I make this property work?” recalls Sharon. “Then I decided it’s not going to be about my property, it’s going to be about the community.” So she formed the Washington Boulevard Business Association, which got the streetscape restored and the traffic rerouted to make it easier for people to connect with retail.

Sharon in particular recognized the importance of aesthetic improvement. Her passions for the arts and defined spaces are central to her career in architecture. She studied dance as a youth and art history in college. She was part of a group that helped to save Detroit’s Music Hall from extinction in the ’80s.

“I think for me it’s very reflective … I have an artistic approach to everything ’ how I look, how I dress … I appreciate the art of it,” she says. “And how you feel in a space can reflect on your behavior. I just feel that everybody should feel good about where they are and the space they’re in.”

 

More than artistic sensibility was needed when she took over the Madison business. Naysayers were skeptical about her filling her father’s shoes, and bigots saw no place in the industry for a woman of color.

“After her father passed, she could have closed down the firm and said, ‘Let me do something else,’” says Emmett Moten, an appointee of former Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young and president of the Moten Group. “But she took the long haul and decided to build up the business.”

Over the next two decades, Sharon utilized her engineering and urban planning background (she has a master’s degree in urban planning) to usher in projects in 25 states and six countries, and the company was thriving. Invitations to key leadership posts followed, including being asked to serve on the White House Conference on Small Business.

Even so, life threw Sharon a series of curve balls. Her two major tenants left. The economy hit bottom. The Detroit Public Schools canceled her contract, and she wound up suing the district. She and her husband got a divorce. And then, most devastating, her sister Roberta became ill with cancer.

“She didn’t have any health care, and she didn’t get medical treatment. By the time I found out and we got her to a doctor, she was stage 4,” Sharon says. “She died three months later.”

Tragedy has a way of resetting priorities, and besides the personal trauma, Sharon had grown weary of the politics.

“I came into this business because I wanted to do good work,” she says. “I just really had to rethink why (and) what after my sister died.”

 

The “what” became twofold: She would work to replace the Madison Building’s lost tenants while at the same time help develop the next generation. So, over the last five years, the primary focus has been pouring millions of dollars into renovating the building and mentoring young people. The building is currently 60 percent occupied, and businesses there include Level One Bank, Bamboo Detroit and Painting with a Twist.

Twist franchise partner Donna Lewis says she and her sister, Michelle, spent eight months trying to find space in a Gilbert property before they wound up visiting the Madison Building “on the coldest day of the year.” It was love at first sight. They’ve been in the building since November.

Sharon has been “very personable, very supportive. She always brings people in to see us; she’s like our number one cheerleader,” Lewis says. The fact that she’s an African-American woman “makes it even better.”

Some of Sharon’s community work was generated by a good friend, former Essence editor Susan Taylor, who called on Sharon to help launch Essence Cares. It was through this national mentoring program that Sharon met and eventually married Michael Steinbeck, a former California banker-turned-mentor who now is helping Sharon with the building’s revitalization.

As she segues into her workday, there’s ample evidence of that foundation laid by the prior generations, and Sharon’s goal for more African-Americans to own real estate hints at that, too.

“I think there’s still a lot of opportunity in the city of Detroit for everybody. The reality is, if you want to be a part of it, you have to step out there,” she says. “If we as a people, as African-Americans, as young people, just decide, ‘Where do I want to be in here?’ – and really focus – it can happen.”

DARCI E. MCCONNELL, A FORMER LONGTIME JOURNALIST, IS PRESIDENT OF MCCONNELL COMMUNICATIONS, INC.

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