Hazel Park hopes to spur downtown development with John R road diet

It may be referred to as a road diet, but perhaps that’s not accurate enough a term.

Take what’s happening on John R Road in Hazel Park, for instance. While, yes, the southeastern Oakland County community is in the process of eliminating automobile traffic lanes from two in each direction, north-south, to one in each direction, Hazel Park is actually expanding its transportation options for residents and visitors alike.

So while two traffic lanes may have been removed during the first phase of its "road diet," two bicycle lanes have been added, one in each direction, making the streets safer for city bicyclists. The down-sized road means slower traffic, making the streets not only safer for those on two wheels, but also the pedestrians walking down the sidewalks and trying to traverse the crosswalks.

A center left-turn lane has been added, too, making it safer for automobiles seeking to turn.

All that added up means a more accessible Hazel Park for all, which is not only good news for city residents, but local businesses, as well.

And that’s largely the point.

No longer content to provide a thoroughfare for those looking to avoid traffic on I-75, Hazel Park officials want John R to become a destination. So they’re slowing things down a bit, making the city a more walkable place. They envision a true downtown, something that the construction of I-75 robbed them of decades ago when critical portions of the old downtown were demolished to make way for the interstate.

"It’s hard to promote a downtown atmosphere when people are going 40 mph down the street," says Jeff Campbell, director of the city’s Department of Planning & Economic Development.

"What we’re trying to do is improve the quality of life for our residents. We want them to feel safe enough to walk around, and that’s something that shouldn’t be limited to Ferndale and Royal Oak."

Neighboring Ferndale is a good place to look for inspiration, a community that has experienced significant downtown development since employing a road diet on Nine Mile Road at the turn of the millennium.

It’s perhaps understandable then as to why some realtors and developers consider Hazel Park "the next Ferndale." As Ferndale grows more and more expensive, many area millennials are turning to Hazel Park when looking to purchase their first home. While the city’s more affordable homes, central location within the tri-county region, and proximity to downtown Detroit are certainly selling points, a walkable downtown Hazel Park would help even more so.

Some say it's already happening. Trendy restaurants like Mabel Gray and Latido at Joebar are leading the way. And a multi-story mixed-use development of commercial and residential space was recently announced for an old CVS site, and construction should begin in earnest come the next construction season.

"You look at the buildings where Mabel Gray and Joebar are, they were constructed before I-75. That’s what downtown used to look like. We’re trying to leverage our momentum," says Edward Klobucher, City Manager for Hazel Park.

"We’re fortunate to have a lot of interest in Hazel Park already. We want to build from that interest."

The buildings to which he refers are typical of a downtown main street, ones that come right up to the city sidewalk. For cities with more typical downtowns, that means patio seating, popular amenities made ideal by slow-moving traffic, not the mini-highway of the old John R.

Hence the road diet. The stretch of John R between 8 Mile Road and I-75 finished its own road diet late this summer. The city is currently applying for grants for street beautification enhancements.

Construction on the road diet for the northern portion of John R, from I-75 to 10 Mile Road, should begin sometime in mid-September, with construction scheduled to finish by the end of the construction season.

"We want to create a walkable downtown atmosphere with opportunities for new businesses to come in," Klobucher says.

Campbell adds, "We’re trying to get people that come through Hazel Park to stay awhile and see what the city has to offer and not just be another traffic stop."

Got a development news story to share? Email MJ Galbraith here or send him a tweet @mikegalbraith.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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