Walkable by design: Downtown Northville plans for foot access

Welcome to Metromode’s new “Walkable Suburbs” series, where we take a walk in some of the metro Detroit region’s least car-dependent places to live, work and recreate. We’ll meet the people who live there, the business owners who take advantage of the pedestrian-friendly environment, and the city officials responsible for keeping things walkable.
 

Along the way, we hope you’ll find new areas to explore and learn about how communities are creating and sustaining the kinds of places that experts say is so key to attracting and retaining young talent.
 

Our second neighborhood is historic downtown Northville.
 

We hope you enjoy the walk. If you’d like to nominate a walkable neighborhood in metro Detroit, email Metromode’s Managing Editor Nina Ignaczak at nina@metromodemedia.com.
 

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A downtown needs specific attributes for it to have characters, like beautiful storefronts, memorable window displays, a variety of tasty restaurants and family-friendly attractions. But perhaps most important of them all, a downtown needs a sense of history and respect for the people and places that make it great.

Perhaps that is why residents, visitors and business owners alike appreciate downtown Northville

People here are proud of their history and seek to preserve as well as enhance it. The city even brags about its timeless appeal – it’s the kind of downtown where you can walk from a children’s theater to a homey eatery to an ice-cream store before strolling past a dozen stores that feature one-of-a-kind merchandise.

Northville, one should note, didn’t just happen this way. For decades, the downtown, its store owners, landlords and municipal organizers have worked brick by brick, sidewalk square by sidewalk square, to ensure its appeal, community spirit and history are maintained, promoted and enriched. In other words, its charm is by design. 

“Like Petulant Clark said, ‘It’s all downtown,’” says resident Christina Beattie, who moved from Grosse Pointe with her husband, Steve, and three sons to Northville about five years ago. “It’s very quaint, friendly and has an old-town feel. Yet it is modern. … Downtown serves as my meeting place for lunch, dinner or coffee.”

Northville, a city of about 6,000 residents, sits between Wayne and Oakland counties. It was incorporated as a village in 1867, that is why there are so many well-preserved Victorian and early 1930s homes and commercial spaces there. Northville, which became a city in 1955, is about 30 minutes from downtown Detroit and downtown Ann Arbor, attracting people who work in both cities but want a more suburban setting with great schools.

The land in and around Northville benefits from varied topography as well, there are rolling hills, lots of green spaces and municipal parks. A headwaters tributary of the Rouge River runs through town as well. Homes ranging from upscale condos, newer multi-family apartments and single-family residents surround the cozy downtown, which has theaters, a lush landscape and even old-fashioned street lamps and a landmark clock where you can meet friends.

“I love that I can park downtown and not worry about parking meters. I can walk to the pharmacy, restaurants, get my hair done, grab an ice cream, coffee, do wine-tasting at the downtown winery; and in the fall; get cider and donuts at Parmenter's,” Northville’s beloved cider mill, Beattie says. “Walking into town is so accessible.”

Having schools, municipal buildings, churches and other services like doctors’ offices nearby is another reason why Beattie appreciates Northville’s careful planning. That is where thinking about how residents and visitors experience the downtown has been a true asset, according to Lori Ward, Northville’s Downtown Development Authority director.

Northville DDA Director Lori Ward. Photo by Dave Lewinski.

“We work really hard on trying to make that experience from the neighborhoods into the downtown a really good one,” says Ward, noting investments in lights, signs, and architecture that connect people to the downtown easily. “It’s a good experience; one that people want to do while they walk rather than in a car.”

Walkability is actively planned and designed for here. The downtown has a plan in place to ensure sidewalks and streets are accessible to pedestrians, bicyclists and, significantly, families. Ward says she regularly meets with store owners, residents and landlords in the office or over coffee to go over suggestions for events, new businesses and the like to ensure everyone is heard and respected.

“There’s a sense of place here; that doesn’t happen accidentally,” Ward says. “People look out for their neighbors. Store owners know their customers. Commercial neighbors think about investing in their properties. Everyone has a vested interest in the success of the downtown.

Another one of Beattie’s favorites is longstanding retailers such as the Dancing Eye Gallery. Owner Theresa Schierloh has been in retail for three decades; her art gallery and a home-goods store has been in downtown Northville for more than 20 years.

Dancing Eye Gallery owner Theresa Schierloh. Photo by David Lewinski.

“People go to other cities to shop, and when they come back to Northville, they understand how different and unique it is,” Schierloh says. “It’s authentic here. I love being in a historic building surrounded by a great mix of retail and restaurants.”

Having a diverse mix of events alongside a wide-ranging group of stores is another reason why people come into Northville on a regular basis. That key mix of daytime and nighttime attractions isn’t easy to create, Schierloh says.

“That’s the secret of how you last in a community; you have to offer something that makes people get off of their couch and into your store. Northville thinks about that,” Schierloh says. “I do everything here – I buy my food, I eat out with friends, I get my clothing. That is what brings everyone in and keeps them coming back.”

That old-fashion business sense alongside a desire to add a fresh experience to Northville is what attracted Jeff Ferrell and his fiancé, Sherri Abbulone, to open in November Cherie Baby Ice Cream Café, a quick-serve eatery that blends the couple’s love of food with a sense of nostalgia for sweet treats.

Cherie Baby Ice Cream owners Jeff Farrell and Sherri Abbulone.

Cherie Baby took over the former Fred’s Ice Cream spot, so Abbulone wanted to balance the new with the classic. So she added Novi’s own Guernsey Dairy and Hudsonville ice creams alongside East Coast favorite edible cookie dough and her signature dish, Philadelphia Cheesesteak.

“The whole community has been so supportive – we’ve had local chefs come in here, sit down, eat with us and try our food,” Abbulone says. “It’s a culinary town, and we wanted to bring that spirit to what we offer. We like to say we’re Instagram worthy.”

The couple also noticed how many families with dogs walk through the downtown, so they added special service where dog owners can ring in, order off an iPad and eat on the go. Northville is the kind of town where everyone walks by so you might as well create a special service for them, Ferrell says.

“We’re cooking with love,” Abbulone adds.
 

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