Michigan's highway: The present state of Michigan Avenue, our state's most important road

Here in Michigan, the nearly 2,500-mile highway US-12 is known simply as Michigan Avenue. 

Since its initial construction in 1827, Michigan Avenue has arguably been the state's most important thoroughfare. It was the first official connector to Chicago. Cities and towns have been founded along its path. Today, businesses line both sides of the road in Detroit, Dearborn, Ypsilanti, and more. And exciting changes are in the works to modernize this centuries-old road. 

To better understand the road's importance, Concentrate will explore the past, present, and future of Michigan Avenue in a three-part series presented in conjunction with Metromode and Model D, our sister publications in the metro Detroit area and the city of Detroit.

Mark Maynard fell in love with Ypsilanti as a student at the University of Michigan playing gigs there with his band. A wife, two kids, and a house later, he's still in love with the small city in Washtenaw County.

"This is a cool little town," says Maynard. "There's great architecture, good deals on nice houses, a growing arts scene, lots of music."

Maynard has done a lot of thinking about what it takes to build a successful community through his popular blog, which is a mixture of Ypsilanti news, politics, and personal musings. Part of that is encouraging locals to buy property and preventing outside developers from altering the town's special character. 
Mark Maynard in the nearly-completed Landline Creative Labs
So that's just what Maynard and business partner Jesse Kranyak did last year after purchasing an old Bell Telephone Company building on Pearl Street just off Michigan Avenue. Called Landline Creative Labs, they're nearly finished with the renovation that will include first-floor retail and a second-floor office and studio space for creative professionals. 

"It's one thing to blog about the community and another to put your money where your mouth is," says Maynard. "Ypsilanti has its own unique feel now and we don't want that to go away."

Maynard and Kranyak are just two of the many entrepreneurs who have started businesses as part of an economic resurgence that's taken place along Michigan Avenue. After a sharp downturn in the late 2000s, commercial strips and downtowns along the corridor have been activated thanks to a mixture of attractive building stock, reliable traffic, and active development organizations. 

Detroit: Improved transit options

Detroit's Michigan Avenue renaissance started just over a decade ago with the opening of Slows Bar-B-Q. 

Where previously there were only a handful, today businesses line both sides of the street on the one-mile stretch of road from 14th Street to the John C. Lodge Freeway. There are restaurants (Gold Cash Gold, Ottava Via), cafes (Astro Coffee, Detroit Institute of Bagels), a bike shop (Metropolis Cycles), and more. There's even a reclaimed woodworking store (Woodward Throwbacks). 

Michigan Avenue in the Corktown neighborhood has a lot going for it: close proximity to downtown, active community groups, great building stock, and the synergy of numerous other businesses located just off Michigan Avenue, like Mudgie's Deli and the Farmer's Hand. Corktown, and by extension Michigan Avenue, has become a regional destination for nightlife and shopping. 

Gold Cash Gold on Michigan Avenue
The city of Detroit has gotten involved, too. 

The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) improved bus service along Michigan Avenue, doubling frequency and increasing service to 24 hours a day. Neil Greenberg, DDOT's manager of scheduling and service development, says there were two good reasons for this change: ridership has steadily grown along the corridor despite weaker service, and it's become one of the densest parts of Detroit. 

Biking has also been a point of emphasis. Coordinating with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), DDOT added protected bike lanes to the road. One of only a few sets of these lanes in the city, they improve cyclist safety by using parking spots as a buffer between bike and traffic lanes. 

A city-wide bike share program is also set to roll out in the next couple of months. The Downtown Detroit Partnership will install 43 stations containing over 400 bicycles in the system.

"How many of us have gotten in a car to drive to a meeting a couple miles away?" says Lisa Nuszkowski, executive director of Detroit Bike Share. "Bike sharing can fit in nicely to connect people to shorter distances."

The placement of these stations has yet to be finalized. But with businesses on and around the main thoroughfare, protected bike lanes, and in close proximity to downtown, Michigan Avenue fits perfectly into this system.

Dearborn: Massive development deals

As dramatic as Corktown's turnaround has been, Dearborn's is equally impressive. 

According to Barry Murray, director of economic and community development for the city of Dearborn, vacancy rates were as high as 40 percent along Michigan Avenue in the late 2000s. As of 2016, that number was down to 12 percent. 

That decrease can be attributed to the steady increase in individual businesses like Brome Burger and Dearborn Fresh Supermarket. More importantly, the city has helped secure a variety of major, multi-million dollar developments.

The momentum first began with the $70 million redevelopment of the old Montgomery Ward department store at Michigan and Schaefer Road into a mixed-use medical complex. The city purchased the property, put out a request for development proposals, and helped make the project a reality. "It was built when the rest of the economy was going in the dumpster," says Murray. "That complex really changed the corner."

Barry Murray, director of Economic and Community Development for the city of Dearborn

In 2014, the city relocated from its offices to a building further west on Michigan Avenue that had been vacated by a data processing company. But then officials wondered what to do with the abandoned, nearly 100-year-old City Hall. That's when Artspace stepped in to develop 53 units of housing and studio space for artists. 

"It's an amazing reuse of a property that might not have been good for other things," says Mike Bewick, executive director of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority. 

Plans for the campus don't end there. The concourse that connects the two main City Hall buildings will be converted into a white box commercial space for cafes, galleries, and other businesses. 

In perhaps the biggest news of all, Ford Land Development acquired 10 buildings in West Dearborn, including the historic Wagner Hotel, for conversion into a mixed-use office and retail center. The project will cost approximately $60 million and bring 600 employees to the area. (We'll have more on this development in this series' next installment on the future of Michigan Avenue.)

At the center of all these developments is Michigan's Highway. "Michigan Avenue is the heartbeat of our city," says Murray. "All our institutions relate back to it."

Ypsilanti: A new favorite for artists

Not to be outdone, Ypsilanti has also seen a reversal in economic fortunes. According to Beth Ernat, director of economic development for the city of Ypsilanti, vacancy rates in the city's historic downtown have dropped from 40 to 10 percent in the last five years—numbers almost identical to Dearborn's.

Ernat credits the turnaround, in part, to the creation of a neighborhood enterprise zone in the city's working-class south side that helped stabilize home ownership through tax incentives. But more than that, the national, state, and Michigan Avenue economies have simply improved. 

In those five years, downtown Ypsi has seen the opening of restaurants (Red Rock Barbecue), a brewery (Ypsi Alehouse), antique shops, a tattoo parlor, and much more. 

In addition to Landline Creative Labs, owners of the women's clothing store Mix rented out a performance space next door to their shop. These developments, plus high rental prices in nearby Ann Arbor, have made Ypsilanti an increasingly popular place for Washtenaw-area artists to locate. Locals also organized a local art tour, First Fridays Ypsilanti, which takes place on—you guessed it—the first Friday of every month. 

It's helped artists bring attention to local businesses, and vice versa. 

Challenges remain

Michigan Avenue, downtown Detroit

Despite the phenomenal growth of these commercial corridors, development experts agree that Michigan Avenue hasn't reached its full potential. A major reason for that is the design of the road itself, which is five lanes wide in parts of each city, down from seven in some cases, with sidewalks too narrow to accommodate cafe-style seating and larger tree varieties. 

Despite use of occasional medians and parking buffers, Michigan Avenue remains a decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly street. 

"We want to get people into the public realm and interacting with others," says Nuszkowski. "To do that, people need to feel safe and protected from traffic."

But because Michigan Avenue is part of the state's Highway Trunkline System, it's controlled by MDOT. Making changes to the street's infrastructure remains a perpetual challenge for planners. 

"Michigan Avenue is a blessing and a curse," says Bewick. "It's a blessing because Dearborn grew up along Michigan Avenue, and there's retail on both sides of town. But it's a curse because it's run by MDOT, and their objective is to get traffic through, not encourage stops."

The region also had an opportunity to greatly increase connectivity between these cities along Michigan Avenue last year. But a ballot proposal to collect millages across four southeastern Michigan counties to fund regional transit service failed. Among the many ways the proposal would have improved public transit, it also called for the creation of rapid bus lines along Michigan Avenue. 

But no one's giving up. Michigan Avenue has been an important road historically, and remains so today. "Michigan Avenue is such a great corridor," says Ernat. "It really has room for everything."

Check back in two weeks, when we'll conclude this series with a look at the future of Michigan Avenue.

Aaron Mondry is the managing editor of Model D and a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
All photos by Nick Hagen.