Can Detroit businesses survive city’s push for walkable neighborhoods?

SLIDESHOW: A $17 million project has crippled business along the Avenue of Fashion, the stretch of Livernois between Seven and Eight Mile roads that has about 150 stores. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

SLIDESHOW: A $17 million project has crippled business along the Avenue of Fashion, the stretch of Livernois between Seven and Eight Mile roads that has about 150 stores. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

SLIDESHOW: “At one point, we would go three hours with no customers coming in,” said April Anderson, owner of Good Cakes and Bakes (above). (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

SLIDESHOW: A $17 million project has crippled business along the Avenue of Fashion, but this ceramics studio and gallery advertises that it's open. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

SLIDESHOW: A $17 million project has crippled business along the Avenue of Fashion, a stretch of Livernois between Seven and Eight Mile roads with about 150 stores. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

SLIDESHOW: Michael Banks opened Professional Racquet Services on Livernois in 1985. The strip contains the largest concentration of black-owned businesses in Detroit. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

SLIDESHOW: Mounds of dirt sit outside Fred's furniture liquidation store, which displayed a Sotheby's "for sale" sign in the window this week. When asked if the store was sale, the owner said he was "just testing the market." (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

SLIDESHOW: Krispy Addicts, a mid- to high-end men's boutique, is offering a "construction sale" of 10 percent off. 

DETROIT – On an early fall afternoon, patrons jammed inside Good Cakes and Bakes, sampling sweets, smiling in a photo booth and buying jewelry from a vendor.

The scene at the annual Light up Livernois event last month was one most merchants would envy, except for a few details: Patrons had to park blocks away and navigate through a streetscape construction zone to enter the popular bakery.

The $17 million project has crippled business along the Avenue of Fashion, the stretch of Livernois between Seven and Eight Mile roads that has about 150 stores and contains the largest concentration of black-owned stores in Detroit. This summer, walk-in sales at Good Cakes and Bakes dropped 33 percent. They’re now down 14 percent, said owner April Anderson.

“When it first happened, it almost put me in a panic state, only because I have employees and [they] definitely depend on their hours and their salary in order to take care of their families,” said Anderson, who stayed in business by transitioning to catering and deliveries.

“At one point, we would go three hours with no customers coming in.”

April Anderson

April Anderson, owner of Good Cakes and Bakes, said sales at her Livernois bakery dropped 33 percent this summer. She stayed in business with deliveries and catering. (Courtesy photo)

Complaints are common with many construction projects, but the work along the Avenue of Fashion is being watched closely because it’s the most prominent of seven of Mayor Mike Duggan’s so-called 20-minute neighborhoods, compact districts meant to encourage cycling and foot traffic.

Other efforts by Duggan’s administration to make the Motor City more walkable also have proved controversial, from sacrificing lanes of roads for 43 miles of bike lanes to encouraging the use of scooters and closing streets downtown to create the Spirit of Detroit Plaza.

Detroit officials said the projects will help small businesses and attract young residents. 

But many along the Avenue of Fashion say city officials sought little input before moving ahead with the 1.2-mile project that involves removing the road’s median, adding a center lane, shrinking the boulevard to two lanes from four, adding a bike lane and widening sidewalks to 24 feet to promote outside dining.

"It was one or two meetings to get feedback on residents’ impressions on removing the median and expanding the sidewalks so that people could have seating outside of restaurants as well as installing a bike lane. (But) it was not consistent and regular outreach,” said Dalton Roberson, who lives on Oak Drive, about two blocks from the project.

“We were led to believe that all of this would be done and wrapped up by November. Now we are learning it will be extended until spring of next year.”

Livernois scooter

“In terms of walkable [areas] and the bike lanes, it's like they're forcing gentrification in a neighborhood that didn't ask for it, said Wayne Phillips, who frequently shops on Livernois. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

The initiative is the brainchild of Maurice Cox, the city’s planning director until resigning for a similar job in Chicago last month. City officials blamed heavy rains early this spring for project delays.

“The Avenue of Fashion is one of the most vibrant commercial corridors in Detroit, and the streetscape project there is building upon that and ultimately beautifying the area,” said Pierre Batton, vice president of small business services for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. 

“Because of how intensive it was and Michigan's fickle weather during the course of the summer, that led to a couple of delays that weren't originally expected.”

But many merchants and residents said the work disproportionately harms black-owned businesses for a streetscape project that will mostly benefit newer residents.

“In terms of walkable [areas] and the bike lanes, it's like they're forcing gentrification in a neighborhood that didn't ask for it. Those decisions are made in a bubble,” said Wayne Phillips, who lives in the Boston-Edison neighborhood and frequently shops on Livernois.

"The city should have gotten feedback from the residents and businesses before they just started making decisions willy-nilly," he added.

Some business owners who initially supported the project said they are experiencing heavy losses. Others, such as 1975 Urban Wear Inc., above, and Uptown Floral Design Studio, have closed because they couldn't withstand losses during the construction. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

Ryan Mack said he makes a conscious effort to support Livernois businesses and questioned whether downtown merchants would tolerate such a project.

"It's just very obvious that there's a bias in terms of treatment towards black-owned businesses and neighborhoods. You know, ain't no bike lane worth this," said Mack, who lives in nearby Sherwood Forest.

Changing the ‘old way’

Change is always hard, especially in a city synonymous with autos, but streetscape plans could help businesses, said Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. 

"Exploring on foot or bike is an experience Detroit is lacking when compared to other major cities," said Bernacchi, who studies Detroit issues. 

"We must consider that most change is difficult at first. Much of the backlash is the reactive emotions of motorists that were used to the old way."

A welcome mat outside a closed business on the Avenue of Fashion this week. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

But even some business owners who initially supported the project said they are experiencing heavy losses. Mike's Market has lost about $350,000 during the construction, said Dolphin Michael, president of the Livernois Business Association. Others, such as 1975 Urban Wear Inc. and Uptown Floral Design Studio, have closed because they couldn't withstand losses during the construction, Michael added.

"The construction –  really the streetscape –  really hurt businesses," Michael said. "It's frustrating. They've virtually closed all of our businesses until the streetscape is finished.”

Equally troubling is 18 businesses on the Avenue of Fashion were set to open, but never did, Michael said.

Kuzzos

Kuzzo's Chicken and Waffles closed July 15 after enduring losses of 40 percent to 50 percent over two months, said owner Ron Bartell. Bartell had planned to close for renovations this fall. But his timeline moved ahead once the project commenced. When he will reopen is anyone's guess, he said. (Bridge photo by Monica Williams)

One prominent restaurant took a different path. Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles closed July 15 after enduring losses of 40 to 50 percent over two months, said owner Ron Bartell.

Knowing 18 months ago the construction was coming, Bartell planned to close for renovations this fall. But his timeline moved ahead once the project commenced.

"Quite frankly, we were planning on closing in September, but with how bad the construction affected our business and everyone else's, we just thought it'd be prudent to just move our timeline up a little bit earlier and close," Bartell said.

When Kuzzo’s will reopen is anyone's guess since Bartell is in the midst of renovations and he'd also have to hire and train staff.

"No one foresaw it being this extensive and disruptive for businesses," Bartell said. "It's a necessary evil in terms of the idea of the construction and how we see it as a possibility to make it a more walkable district. The city could have been a little bit more proactive in terms of having things in place."

In late August, city officials unveiled a loan program for businesses hurt by the project. The effort will allow them to borrow from $5,000 to $20,000 with no payments until two years after the construction is finished. After two years of on-time payments, the last 36 months or 60 percent of the loan will be forgiven. But if a borrower misses a payment they will owe the entire balance.

Batton of the DEGC said six loans have been approved.

"Business is what we do. This was something we couldn't jump into fast enough," Batton said. "We all want things to happen faster. We're trying to move at light speed at this thing and to aid our businesses that are impacted."

Detroit also has added weekend shuttle buses and other programs to encourage shopping on Livernois.

Construction along the Avenue of Fashion south of Eight Mile Road has disrupted traffic and diverted parking, forcing businesses to close. 

‘Nail in the coffin’

Construction of the 20-minute neighborhoods in six other areas, though, are also hampering businesses, owners said.

In the Grandmont-Rosedale neighborhood, Max Hardy unexpectedly announced the closure of his River Bistro restaurant Sept. 27. 

"The nail in the coffin was the construction," said Hardy, who was featured in The New York Times as a leading black chef changing the food industry in America. 

Construction outside the Caribbean restaurant started about mid-July. The city tore out water lines and added a stop sign, bike lanes and a turning lane in front of the restaurant. 

Hardy, who attended several planning and community meetings, suggested the construction take place at night so businesses would not be harmed.

Instead, patrons endured loud noise, parking hassles and other inconveniences as work crews dug up concrete for two days.

"You could feel the vibration and noise from the construction despite having music on," he said. “Who wants to sit down and have lunch and feel vibrations from guys banging on the concrete? A lot of that was a factor."

Farther along Grand River, other businesses are having problems enduring the construction. 

Asia Hamilton, owner of Norwest Gallery of Art along Grand River on the far west side, said the construction initially wasn't a problem. Now, it's difficult to find parking and it's an unpleasant place to walk around with a lot of dirt and debris outside.

"It hasn't been a whole lot of money that's been lost," Hamilton said. "But definitely I've had people that want to rent the venue for things and they've shied away from renting my space because of the parking [and] traffic.”  

On the Avenue of Fashion, there have been targeted efforts to patronize businesses during the construction. First Friday “cash mobs” have been launched to infuse at least $5,000 one evening a month onto the strip and at  Good Cakes and Bakes, Leah Willis is a part of an artist collaborative that goes to Livernois businesses twice a month.

"If they go away what representation do we have? What kind of diversity [will] we actually have in the area?" asked Willis.

"Our whole solution is black artists supporting other black artists. Wherever we meet, it's at a black-owned business. After I found out about what was going on at Livernois, we are intentionally supporting [them]."

Bartell, the restaurant owner, said he’s counting on Detroit's resiliency to keep the Avenue of Fashion thriving.

"It's important for people around the city who patronize these businesses to make sure we're still [going to] them during this time," Bartell said. "The Avenue of Fashion --  just this stretch of Livernois -- has the largest conglomerate of black-owned businesses and black-owned commercial property owners. And you know, we take pride in that. 

"We have to support them even if it causes a little friction in our day and we have to park two blocks and walk to patronize these businesses. It's just important that we support them."

About the author

Darren A. Nichols is a Detroit-based freelance reporter and was an award-winning journalist at The Detroit News.

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Comments

LLA
Thu, 10/17/2019 - 8:32am

Short-term pain, long-term gain. I feel for these business owners and employees, truly. But, if Detroit wants to actually grow, rather than shrink as it continues to do so, things need to change. Visit any well-managed, high quality-of-life city and "walkability" really is the name of the game. Detroit is an aging city that desperately needs to attract younger residents. Creating walkable neighborhoods and decreasing dependence on autos is the way to do it.

mary therese lemanek
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 10:02am

However when the pain becomes crippling and forces the businesses to close, there is no long term gain for them. Retrofitting is always a challenge with things lost and gained but this seems to be an unfair burden on existing businesses.

LLA
Fri, 10/18/2019 - 11:12am

Correct, there is no gain for them. Unfortunate as that may be, there is long-term gain for the neighborhood and the city as a whole.

Bones
Mon, 10/21/2019 - 10:00am

Except that it's mostly going to be small businesses and individual owners getting forced out for large real estate firms and corporations to swoop in on the desirable properties once the construction is finished...

LLA
Tue, 10/22/2019 - 4:03pm

Again, we're in Detroit. We are not literally any other major city in the U.S. Less than a decade ago we were BEGGING for a national retailer to move into the city limits (Meijer). If it's a large real estate firm or corporation that provides jobs and services to the neighborhood, excellent!

John
Thu, 10/17/2019 - 10:05am

Businesses have always struggled with infrastructure construction projects negatively impacting their business. The larger pill is added construction to attract walkers. It is easy to point to other cities accomplishments and go directly to the result bypassing the many steps required to get there. As an example, before people are willing to walk they need to feel safe. Not sure Detroit is there.

Graham Davis
Thu, 10/17/2019 - 10:40am

Record rain in the spring delayed the start of this project and made construction more difficult than intended. It rained nearly every day in May this year, which made it extremely difficult to progress with major construction work that was planned then: https://www.freep.com/story/weather/2019/05/28/how-much-rain-metro-detro...

There were numerous community meetings leading up to the start of the project, and the final design for the project was voted on by residents/businesses in the area. (The project was first announced three years ago.)

Since construction started, the City has also (in addition to the grant/loan program and signage mentioned in the piece):
- Launched Livernois soup events where Avenue of Fashion businesses can pitch ideas and win $10k in prizes. The next one of these events is tonight at Good Times on the Avenue.
- Launched free parking shuttles and set up free offstreet parking to make it easier to get up and down the avenue
- District 2 district manager Kim Tandy has been working nonstop with Livernois business owners to address concerns and meet 1:1 to assist
- The city has highlighted Livernois businesses during construction to encourage people to shop there. Search #ShopLivernois on Facebook or Twitter to see examples.

There have also been new businesses opening on Livernois despite the construction. Shears and Shaves, a beautiful new barbershop/spa, opened in August on the Avenue: https://www.fox2detroit.com/news/barbershops-arent-just-for-boys-shears-...
Three Thirteen Shoe Doctor opened in early September: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2334538186813271
and Durden's Catering has had lines out the door all summer for its Young Gripper chicken sandwich: https://www.clickondetroit.com/news/durden-catering-draws-customers-in-f...

All that said, crews have been working six days a week to complete this project. We know this has impacted business on Livernois and want to finish construction ASAP. By the end of this construction season, all of the roadway and on-street parking will be completed and open to traffic.

The only construction that will carry over into Spring 2020 will be the installation of a portion of sidewalk on the west side of Livernois north of Pembroke, as well as cosmetic work, such as landscaping and the installation of benches and decorative lighting.

Weekly updates on streetscape progress are posted here: https://detroitmi.gov/departments/department-public-works/complete-stree...

middle of the mit
Thu, 10/17/2019 - 6:28pm

I am just going to say this.

President Obama once said;"that road, in front of your business. You didn't build that."

Of course conservatives omitted the first part of that statement and claimed that you don't need facts, it's just "perception" and a war of "ideas".

The sad fact of the matter is that occasionally you have to upgrade, And if you don't the customers you have won't come anymore. A little time of upgrade will just improve business.

Otherwise, move up north.

Mike Shirkey says were are going to back to gravel roads. I can't imagine that includes gravel bike paths or walking paths.

Forge your own path!!

truthteller
Thu, 10/17/2019 - 8:50pm

Maybe the neighborhoods crumbled in the first place bacause of any lack of local infarastructure. It's nice being able to stroll to the market and grab groceries for a few days and then go get some weed on the way home.