Think about your favorite restaurant experience ever. I’m guessing it was not a national corporate chain restaurant. It very possibly wasn’t even a local chain, but rather an independent, one-of-a-kind place that impressed you not only with its food but also with its personality.
Independent restaurants, retailers and other businesses are the soul of a neighborhood. They distinguish it from other areas. They tell us what the values and lifestyles of the residents are. And because they are local from top to bottom, they – through their owners – become part of the fabric of community life. The businesses we love are the ones we feel that we all own.
This is why I nearly have an aneurysm every time someone tells me how much they wish something like a Gap would open on Woodward.
I’m not saying a Gap wouldn’t be handy downtown. And I’m not saying Woodward doesn’t need a good dose of retail. But I am saying this: how come, in our wildest retail fantasies, we dream of an Old Navy in the middle of downtown’s prime real estate?
When we talk about renewed interest in living and recreating downtown, a big part of the appeal is attractions that exist no place else – architecture, sporting venues, cultural institutions, and the businesses that exist only there. So why is there this push to copy what already exists elsewhere … everywhere? It seems to me that a surefire way to kill the unique appeal of downtown Detroit is to replicate Fairlane Mall there.
Detroit needs to embrace independent retail as an important way to wake up our downtown streets. City officials could develop incentives for the development of dozens of small businesses with just a fraction of the tax breaks they use to lure larger employers downtown. Property owners could adjust their ground floor rates so that decent retail space is attainable to quality small businesses, instead of leaving entire city blocks of ground floor space empty. And customers can make a choice to find the independent businesses that provide good quality and service instead of always choosing the chain. It’s easy to do when you pay attention to it.
From a design perspective, independent business owners are much more likely to push the envelope and take chances to make their venture stand out.
- It’s not just being able to find the (spectacular) design merchandise at stores like Mezzanine or Bureau of Urban Living in the city center that makes these places stand out, it’s also the fact that both stores provide a well-designed, compelling retail experience.
- Driving down Cass Avenue, the large blue and orange sign for Canine to Five dog day care catches your eye every time, which shows that something as simple as good graphic design can let you know there is a business that gets it.
- There’s no arguing that the food at Slows Bar-B-Q in Corktown or Eve the Restaurant in Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown (two very different personal favorites) is amazing, but the atmosphere at each restaurant conveys the personality of the owners and the philosophy that quality extends beyond the kitchen.
Even in real estate development, the little guy has the design edge. There are some very attractive, if not entirely architecturally significant, new residential buildings in the works here in the city. But for members of the creative class (I can’t believe I just used that expression), projects like the Detroit Candy Company loft development near Eastern Market or the Grand Boulevard Garden Lofts on the city’s near east side are going to have particular cachet, all because of the attention paid to good design.
As a final note to all the current or future “little guys” out there, a grass-roots group called “Open City” has formed in an effort to connect entrepreneurs interested in opening a business in Detroit. The mission of this group is to share information and ideas, network with like-minded folks and encourage each other to open more small businesses in town. If you are in any stage of considering a business in Detroit, I highly recommend checking this out, if only so you can see the kind of great support that exists among small business owners in town. The next meeting of the group is Tuesday, October 16 at 6:30pm at Cliff Bells, 2030 Park Avenue.