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Design Talk by MV no. 15 - My Father, From Whom I Still Learn: An Interview with Dennis Varian

Happy 2018! To ring in the New Year, I decided to do something a little different, a format for Design Talk that I hope to continue sporadically: an interview. 

My dad is one of my favorite people. I get my entrepreneurialism from him, my interest in urban-social dynamics and structures, an undying love for Detroit, and my early gray hair.

We’re both early risers, so we made a plan to chat early one morning about some of our crossover interests: Detroit, business, and the ways that commerce and industry change alongside the cities that host them.  

What follows is an edited version of our talk, a love-filled exchange between mentor and protégé, you could say. I’m excited to bring his voice to Design Talk, because it’s of a different generation and has a different, but related, point of view on all that we’re considering here. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Sincerely,

MV

As told to Emily R. Pellerin

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Tell me about your city, Detroit, in your own words. How did you first get to know it?  

My first beginnings of becoming aware of the city was that I was a classical music fan and would go to downtown Detroit to attend the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Only very occasionally, because that’s all I could afford [in college, when I first moved here]. But that Detroit—I came here in 1961—at that time, it probably was at its zenith in terms of wealth and population and so on. 

But it had been growing to reach that zenith for a while before you got there, right? 

True. If you took the turn of the century—that is, from the 1900s to the 21st century—Detroit’s population in 1901 was in the vicinity of two hundred thousand. Between then and the depression—1932 or so—it had grown to nearly two million. 

It was attracting people from overseas, new immigrants, and the new movement from the south, both of whites and blacks, was huge. You had an expansion of the city both population-wise and in terms of infrastructure. 

There was that growth, and then I have [also] experienced, [including] more recently, everything from a slow to a dramatic deterioration of the city.

We all know that the auto industry brought a lot of wealth to Detroit, but before that the lumber industry had already established lots of old wealth. With this, there was incredible support for the arts from the early 1900s and continued until the 1960s. The Detroit Institute of Arts has tons of iconic pieces from the late 1800s to Modernism. The caliber of culture and the investment in culture in the city was pretty massive for many, many decades. And you had Motown, too, which grew out of the diverse population influx that came to work in the auto plants.

You had a lot of wealth that of course initiates and sustains all of that. Going into the 20th century you had a number of families who had settled in Detroit but whose fortunes had come from the lumbering business outside the city, which Michigan was a center of at that time 

We then had, from those lumber industry families and the Fords and other auto industry families and so on, tremendous acquisitions for the art institute, support for the symphony, and support for artistic endeavors. 

You work now in residential property development and management. How did you get into that? And what does that mean in a city like Detroit, whose ups and downs have been so striking? 

Because Jennifer, your mom, who was my girlfriend at the time, was in the School of Architecture at the University of Detroit, I’d always been interested in buildings. And I suppose you could say real estate, though I wouldn’t have identified it as that at the time.

I became interested in, and did a lot of reading and thinking on, urban problems. [I read] Jane Jacobs and [learned] about the importance of neighborhoods, teeming with business and residence. This was in the mid-‘60s. That really brought me into urban architecture and urban design issues.

That’s around when you moved into a house downtown, right? 

Yes. It was a renovated 1950s building and was part of a housing cooperative, which had been sponsored, developed, then was converted by a national organization, the Foundation for Cooperative Housing. I became a board member and president of the cooperative and met the regional manager for the foundation, Wendell Addington, who ended up offering me a job with the Foundation. Wendell and I ultimately created our own company. 

So that was my introduction to both market rate and subsidized housing with cooperative ownership. Modest income-type housing, not like the co-ops in New York. It was something most working people could afford.

We spent years trying to figure out how to design and develop senior citizen retirement communities. It took us some real effort to get the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, who’d never financed something like that, a senior community with extensive optional services, including dining, to finance it. We had to talk the agency into it, for which there was no previous model.

To me, your company is responding to social needs in an almost advocate-like manner. When you were getting started and supporting all this middle class housing, for example, it was the first wave of tons of people getting divorced and all of a sudden needing more affordable, single-parent homes. It was also the first generation where it wasn’t normal for [aging] parents to go live with their kids.

You might say we were “progressive,” [but] we were responding to a need that was already there, and that we saw was going to get much bigger. Some people may be able to look [ahead] long-term and see what change may happen, but I think it’s more about being aware that the change is happening now, and being flexible enough to try and meet it.

We’ve always tried to treat everybody the way we would want to be treated in terms of being fair and accommodating. Our company’s mission statement is that we serve our owners, our residents, and our employees. That is our purpose. All three parties are equally important. We [have] had one or two employees for 40 years, a number for 30, and a lot of employees for over 20 years!

What was it like sharing the business with your partner, Wendell? How did you guys divide your business responsibilities?

We had started as a consulting company, and I proposed we could [also] be the developers ourselves. Because of that, in the middle period, while the company was starting out and growing, I took more responsibility for the management of the properties and Wendell took more responsibility of the development. However, as equal partners we had to discuss major issues until we could come to an agreement.

But I had done away, after Wendell’s death, with any real separation between “responsibilities.” After his death [and, thus, not having him as an acting partner], I emphasize having management very involved in the development stage, because how you design a property is really important and has to be dealt with at the early stages. Things like, for example, trash collection and how that’s going to be handled within the property; how you’re going to manage and operate it has to be integral.

Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs, or growing entrepreneurs, specific to this “time” when things are changing so quickly in industry, commerce, and economy?

As history proceeds, change seems to accelerate. Certainly change is happening faster today than it was 10 or 20 years ago. But it was happening then, too! We changed a lot in our business. When Wendell and I first started out we were more involved in family housing, and we morphed more into senior housing—that was a matter of asking, ‘where is the demand at this time?’ 

Knowing what you know about business and being an entrepreneur, were you concerned that I wanted to follow in those footsteps and embark on the uphill battle of starting my own brand and opening my own store?

I was full of warnings, but not discouragements, of what you had to expect having your own business. Our duty was to make sure you understood what to be prepared for, if that was what you were going to choose. I think our approach was, ‘do whatever you think is going to be best and happiest for you,’ and if you had decided you had wanted to be a painter, the starving artist, so be it!

I’m so lucky, because this really was what you guys said to me that day. Lo and behold, here I am, doing what makes me happiest.

 

Comments

Hanna:

Love this post :) how lucky to have such a great dad and so willing to encourage you!

Jan 09, 2018

Jade Dressler:

Loved this! Thank you Michele + Pop!

Jan 07, 2018

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