Main Street Detroit Takes Shape
Vegetable markets, coffee shops, cafes, boutiques and hardware stores on spiffy main streets may be a thing of the past in Detroit. But city and non-profit leaders are banding together to bring them back.
In several commercial areas across the city, neighborhood business associations are using money and assistance from the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan to revamp strips into viable residential/commercial districts.
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s office, under the leadership of Alan Levy, director of the Office of Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization, has launched a series of programs, grants, departments and new zoning, in concert with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and other investors, to support re-development projects. Since 2003, the city and LISC have put $4.25 million toward the effort, and fundraising efforts continue.
The hope is that entrepreneurs and neighborhood groups will work together with the city through four programs:
• Restore Detroit: Community business and development organizations compete for money to hire full-time staff to manage development of main street districts. Restore Detroit provides training and technical assistance to the organizations. Winning a Restore Detroit grant qualifies organizations for further assistance.
The City of Detroit committed $2.4 million over five years and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) committed $1.8 million over three years for Restore Detroit. The grants so far have gone to five organizations spending some $12 million on investment and new construction: the Jefferson East Business District; the Grand River Business District; the Mexicantown West Vernor area; “The 7-Mile Project” on east 7 Mile between John R. and Woodward and University Commons at Livernois near the University of Detroit-Mercy. Each district has received about $500,000 to date.
• Refresh Detroit: Provides matching grant funds and architectural design-assistance for façade improvements, such as sidewalk and landscape upgrades and replacing exterior signage and awnings. The money is granted to neighborhood groups who dole it to property owners and merchants.
• Recap Detroit: National City Bank funds Recap Detroit by providing low-interest loans at below market rate to qualifying groups. National City has issued nearly $1 million in loans to date for the program.
• Renew Detroit: Provides technical assistance and training. Representatives from 19 neighborhood organizations attended a training program in 2003-2004 to help them apply for Restore Detroit monies.
In addition to the programs, the city has changed its zoning to usher in traditional main street districts. The zoning provides for limited parking requirements and the mixing of residential and business functions in the same building, so that apartments and lofts can be placed over and near shops.
The city effort is modeled after the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street Center program, Levy says. This approach involves public/private partnerships for funding and offers support in organization, development, promotion, urban design and economic restructuring.
In addition to city programs, State of Michigan grants also promote main street developments. Last year the Jefferson East Business Association (JEBA) was awarded a $100,000 Cool City grant to establish an entertainment and technology incubator. The grant provides property owners with $25,000 in façade-improvement grants in exchange for leasing space to entertainment or technology businesses at low rents for up to three years. The association provides the businesses with professional consulting services and financial loans.
“This is our way of incubating those businesses,” says Diana Stewart, Jefferson East association executive director. The group has attracted restaurants, clubs, music production companies, art galleries and other related enterprises.
The association operates on $500,000 annual budget, which covers business development, physical planning and development of the streetscape and real estate, clean and safe initiatives and promotion.
The Southwest Detroit Business Association also received a $100,000 Cool City grant. The group used the money towards redeveloping a former Odd Fellows Hall into a cultural center.
It's tough for neighborhood shops to compete in today’s retail environment, Levy says. Back when main streets were the only option, things were different.
“There weren’t shopping centers. There weren’t big boxes (warehouse stores). You didn’t have the Internet,” Levy says. “The environment we find ourselves in is extraordinarily competitive. If we maintained that one of these areas was going to make it just on providing neighborhood services as they did in the ‘30s and ‘40s, it’s not realistic given the level of competition today.”
Down to the neighborhoods
The city’s Restore Detroit programs are emphasizing small business development and in making the districts “clean and safe.”
The “clean and safe” element is critical, says Kathy Wendler, executive director of the Southwest Detroit association. Wendler’s association is not part of Restore Detroit, but benefits from other programs offered by the neighborhood development office.
“People want a clean shopping environment and want to feel safe when they’re shopping,” Wendler says. Her association has a full-time staff person who coordinates a “clean team” of volunteers to patrol the West Vernor shopping area daily to pick up garbage and monitor graffiti.
The East Jefferson business district also employs community cleaning and policing strategies, which includes area surveillance in conjunction with local police precincts.
For districts like Southwest Detroit, a main street shopping district makes economic sense. The Latino base in the area is loyal and needs merchants who speak Spanish and share their culture. Unlike other areas of the city, Southwest Detroit, in the area along Vernor from Michigan Avenue to Dix, offers an abundance of food markets as well as clothing stores, professional services, bakeries and restaurants.
The “pedestrian scale” of West Vernor is its competitive advantage, says Wendler.
“It’s where people go to see and be seen, meet and greet and push their babies and walk around in their finery on days when it’s appropriate to do that. The street is not just for cars, it’s for people,” she says. Of course, the street is not without its problems, especially at night, but continues to be a viable social and commercial area.
“Instead of doing one big shopping (trip), you can walk to a market and get fresh produce and fish or meat for that evening’s meal,” Wendler says.
The Southwest Detroit association promotes “Shop Your Block” in August, as well as a holiday shopping event in December to boost business.
In the near future the association hopes to develop a retail project on the site of a vacated Department of Public Works yard on West Vernor to connect the two sections of the retail district.
Other Detroit business districts need to find a “niche” without becoming alien to their neighborhood communities. That’s a delicate balance, Levy says. Community involvement is only part of the redevelopment “puzzle,” according to Levy.
“For example, you could be successful without having any community involvement at all. It would be very, very hard. You could be successful by having nothing but community involvement. That would be very hard,” Levy says. “As a community-based methodology, we think it’s a core value to get the community involved. It’s a huge resource in terms of time, expertise. The groups that can get their community involved and the community feels a sense of ownership in the long run will be the most sustainable.
“When you talk about being competitive, what makes these areas unique is that there is a sense of community there,” Levy says. “They do have a unique niche in the market place.”