By ELIZABETH CLARK
DEARBORN — Driving down Dearborn’s “main drag” of Michigan Avenue from end to end these days is an almost dizzying experience.
From Wyoming Avenue in the east end, the avenue glides past vintage storefronts and City Hall Park before narrowing and then opening up as it stretches onward toward Gulley Road in the west.
Sailing over Southfield Freeway and the Rouge River, Michigan Avenue curves toward the foliage of the Henry Ford Estate and University of Michigan-Dearborn, where a bend in the road seemingly aims to curl you away from the city.
Stay on course, and soon the sprawl of the young John D. Dingell Transit Center and the compound of the old Chicago Roadhouse, now Andiamos, form a gateway to a second downtown that springs up to reveal seemingly another city altogether. But it is still Dearborn.
Lanes taper between more storefronts and plazas and pocket parks for another mile, widening again near Outer Drive and out past Telegraph to continue past the border at Gulley into Dearborn Heights and beyond.
It’s like riding a rollercoaster. (Hint: Try it in a Ford Mustang.) The bottom line is clear: Dearborn is a fun town, and return trips are a must.
Cruising through the downtown areas, the landscape every few blocks yields a delicious surprise: halal fusion eateries; bike share racks on several corners; distinct architecture amid flora and fauna.
But one point more than anything sticks out to passersby on Michigan Avenue these days: a two-block-long construction zone dominating the west downtown sky.
That construction site is the $60 million dollar-plus Ford Motor Co. development project called Wagner Place, named for the hotel that once stood at Michigan Avenue and Monroe at the turn of the 20th century. The surviving turret is still one of the most distinguishable sights in the city.
The finished product will furnish mixed-use offices for 600 Ford employees and restaurant and retail space, along with a new parking structure funded by the city.
“Wagner Place represents the ongoing evolution of not only our west downtown, but the entire city,” Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. said. “We’re excited to welcome new businesses and our Ford Motor Co. partners to west Dearborn, and look forward to the development bringing hundreds of employees to the area, new customers and a renewed energy to our community.”
Furthermore, West Village Drive will undergo streetscaping improvements in 2018 to make way for a “festival street,” which will allow for street closures for fairs, food truck rallies, and other events, similar to the West Village Commons area of the city further west.
Streetscaping elements also will surround the project with improvements on Michigan Avenue and on one block of Monroe.
“Ford Motor Co’s. commitment and contributions to the community are legendary, and they support the mutually beneficial relationship between corporate interests and a vibrant, attractive and sustainable Dearborn,” Economic and Community Development Director Barry Murray said.
Dearborn recently earned a Redevelopment Ready Community designation by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, wwhich is designed to communicate a welcoming and helpful environment for developers.
“Commercial developers have even more assurance that we are here to work with them and champion their success, for the benefit of our whole city,” O’Reilly said.
Additional streetscaping will be completed along Michigan Avenue from Outer Drive to Elm with assistance from Michigan Department of Transportation funds to be implemented by 2019 or 2020 along Howard, Mason, and Monroe streets.
These streetscapes will create safer pedestrian crossings, planted medians, street lighting, street furniture like benches, and more.
While leasing through Ford Land is still ongoing, the hope is that Wagner Place will set the pace for future development, and will especially influence owners of vacant buildings and properties surrounding the area.
“Vacant space owners are waiting for Wagner Place,” said Mohamed Ayoub, a city planner. He said owners are looking to see what sort of businesses will lease space there, which might then inspire them to sell empty lots or storefronts faster.
Several current business owners near Wagner Place have plans to expand the facades of their buildings by adding floors or patio seating, or by adding apartments or condominiums to their upper levels.
One example is at Mint 29, an international fusion restaurant that recently opened in the former home of the beloved Dearborn Music. The building was remodeled down to its bones to reveal elements from the old Manufacturer’s Bank, including large metal coins depicting such designs as the Liberty Bell and the Mayflower.
Currently, there is seating for over 100, with an outdoor patio and second-floor lounge. Plans include expanding into second-floor dining and adding four stories for apartments.
Some of the forthcoming renovations and expansions are still in such early stages of planning so that that city officials, while enthusiastic about the future, cannot yet discuss the plans openly.
“There are so many projects,” Ayoub said.
Artspace continues to shine in national and local spotlights by earning several prestigious awards and designations, including the Commercial Real Estate Women of Detroit Special Impact award, the Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation and Michigan Downtown Association’s Best Economic Development Private Project over $1 million.
All 53 units of low-income live-and-work space for artists and their families are full, and next on the city’s agenda for the art hub is to lease out the commercial space.
Another venture in downtown east Dearborn is the Dearborn Town Center Senior Housing development, expected to be completed by fall 2018.
Located at Calhoun and Michigan Avenue, the senior housing facility will have 77 one- and two- bedroom independent apartments, as well as a salon, reflection room, parlor, library, activity and multipurpose rooms, theater, lounge, fitness center and a second-floor outdoor terrace.
This facility joins existing city-owned senior housing units Hubbard Manors East and West, Townsend Towers, Kennedy Plaza, and Sission Manor.
Other upgrades in the east include parking lot redesigns, continued sidewalk work and streetscaping, and apartments along the upper floors of the Warren corridor businesses.
“People want to open things here,” Ayoub said. “Look at M Cantina. They were looking to rent in Detroit, and because of higher rents, they came to Dearborn. They see a different type of environment, and they want to be a part of it, part of that downtown type of atmosphere.”
A new marketing plan designed to assist developers and visitors in the coming year will be rolled out by Downtown Dearborn, which combines the east and west Downtown Development Authority offices in the city into one, collaborative group.
“We’ve got a lot on our plate,” Downtown Dearborn Director Cristina Sheppard-Decius said.
Along with continuing programming with the award-winning City Hall Artspace Lofts and events in West Village Commons and across Dearborn, Sheppard-Decius said the DDAs are close to working with a company on a rebranding mission.
“We’re going to create a design platform: visuals, logos, narratives,” she said.
That includes a Wayfinding plan to get the thousands of people who visit Dearborn — for school, work, around, and to let them know where they are going, with easy-to-spot signage and more.
“There are a lot of moving people and parts,” she said.
But the success of Dearborn’s business scene is not just dependent on Michigan Avenue establishments.
The scope of the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce — a business networking program aimed to promote the growth of businesses — goes beyond the actual borders of Dearborn and even Dearborn Heights, with some members benefitting from membership as far away as Florida.
“We really are not bound by geography,” DACC President Jackie Lovejoy said. “Many belong because they do business in our area and want to be prominent.”
Lovejoy is passionate about the upcoming landscape of Dearborn business, but there are also some developments she couldn’t really mention either.
“I will say that, when I came on board in 2013, there was a 38 percent occupancy rate on first-floor businesses,” she said. “That is now at 95 percent.”
The DACC will continue to offer events like Dearborn’s Second Annual Restaurant Week, a trivia series at O’Kelly’s Banquet Hall on Feb. 22, the Chamber Choice Awards at the Henry Hotel on March 16, and more.
And if there are those who cannot drive down Michigan Avenue themselves, the city has a multi-modal plan for that. Plans for additional bike share stations, bikeways, and trails are in development.
“In the first 90 days of our bike share program, we had 1,800 rides,” Lovejoy said.
The West Downtown Discovery Trail will extend from the recent Rouge River Gateway Trail expansion throughout west Dearborn streets such as Monroe, Howard, Newman and possibly more.
Also in the works is the Central Loop bike trail that could loop from the newer trail at UM-Dearborn’s Fairlane Center campus, along Hubbard to Mercury and back up to Michigan Avenue past the city’s civic campus and Ford World Headquarters toward the John D. Dingell Transit Center.
This is in addition to several proposed bikeways, including the length of Outer Drive, and easier bike parking on the street.
Included in this multi-modal plan are several initiatives to improve community health and sustainability, such as Healthy Dearborn; a coalition of businesses, residents, employees, and other community partners who work together to embrace a healthy lifestyle.
That adds on to longstanding programs like recycling in schools and working with the Friends of the Rouge and other partners to continue cleaning and protecting the Rouge River. New ideas, such as a kayak launch on the river, resident rain gardens, air pollution studies in the industrial southern region of the city, are also planned.
“These initiatives are about making Dearborn a better place to live,” Dearborn Sustainability Director Dave Norwood said.
Even Southeastern Mobility Authority for Regional Transit, is getting in on the multi-modal action in Dearborn, adding six stops on its new FAST Michigan bus lines along Michigan Avenue that will for the first time, connect riders from downtown Detroit to Detroit Metro Airport.
“Someday in the not-to-distant future, a visitor to Dearborn coming out of Detroit and driving along Michigan Avenue will experience east downtown as a center for arts and culture,” Murray said “the west downtown as an attractive tourism and entertainment destination, and between the two, a beautiful streetscaped corridor containing spectacular icons.”
(This story was reprinted from Metromode Media. It also is available here.)