Allen Park, the 'jewel' of downriver

Welcome to Allen Park

This is part of a series led by the Michigan Downtown Association, celebrating 40 years of continuous improvement of Michigan communities and downtowns. Additional support also from Downtown Allen Park.

Allen Park's downtown district is one of many that is giving the Michigan Downtown Association plenty of reasons to celebrate 40 years of growth. This story is one in a partner content series led by the Michigan Downtown Association, celebrating 40 years of continuous improvement of Michigan communities and downtowns. Additional support also from Downtown Allen Park.

The diverse nature of the businesses in downtown Allen Park include a coffee shop that has become a gathering spot for residents and visitors, a pastry shop filled with hometown goodness, and a comic book shop that welcomes the casual browser and serious buyer with a mural depicting Superhero powers.


Since 2012, several developments have made way for Allen Park to rightly earn its name of the ‘Jewel of Downriver’, as new businesses have gone in to previously vacant storefronts, which has made way for a complete revival.

“Back then, we had a vacancy rate of about 26 percent, and things were pretty dire through the years following when we had an emergency city manager,” says Jennifer Kibby, executive director of Allen Park’s Downtown Development Authority. “But we’ve really experienced some significant growth in the last few years and welcomed more than 115 new businesses since 2012.”

Now, more than 450 businesses call downtown Allen Park home and the vacancy rate is down to below 13 percent.

Of the new businesses that have opened in the last eight years of this revival, over a third of them have been restaurants. Some of those new businesses include Thai Vylai, which opened in 2014, the addition of Major Tomato in 2015, and The Taco Stand Taqueria in 2016. The Taco Stand has already expanded to Taylor in the years since and is set to open its new location soon.

Allen Park is now home to more than 40 restaurants in the district.

“We pride ourselves on being a foodie destination and have many different types of cuisines,” says Kibby. “And with businesses like The Taco Stand, it’s nice to see them grow and know that they grew from the original location here.”

Plans in recent years have included assistance for businesses such as funding for façade improvements and free design assistance, repairs to leaky windows or coats of new paint.

Other investments have spurred larger investments, such as those completed by City Coffeehouse. Kibby says the owners of the business originally requested a $2,000 grant from the DDA for a window upgrade.

“Our designers encouraged them instead to install garage doors and entirely renovate the building at a cost of $50,000,” Kibby says. “The owners put in $25,000 and the DDA awarded them a $25,000 package of grants which covered the cost of the renovation.”

In the time since, three additional businesses have inquired about garage door style renovations, which will allow them to expand into the street, helping during transition years like 2020.

“The different façade improvement programs and grants have spurred other businesses to undertake renovations after seeing what it has done for places like City Coffeehouse,” says Kibby.

Another tool that has allowed Allen Park to thrive in recent years is the two liquor licenses that the DDA has received through the State of Michigan, a tool that can only be leveraged once cities reach their liquor license quota for buildings that undergo renovation of at least $75,000 over a period of five years. A third project is in the works.

So what’s next for Allen Park?

“We’re at a crossroads of sorts where we are at the end of our previous plan and looking towards what we want to be in the future,” says Kibby.

The previous TIF plan was revised in 1991, and everything has been completed with the exception of the South Allen Streetscape.

“With the constraints of 2020, we’ve focused on projects that are low-cost, and can be completed within some of these current requirements, but still offer high visibility and impact for our community,” says Kibby. “This year, that has meant instituting activity paths within the community, painting our bump outs at some of the major intersections and working the American Legion to hang banners of our service men and women on some of our buildings downtown. We hope to continue in the years to come, as we’ve had much less foot traffic in recent months than we normally would.”


Like many communities, businesses expanded their dining capacity by utilizing sidewalks for additional seating areas and increased awareness and support for downtown businesses through

Additional art is planned for 2021 and Allen Park has begun conversation with both the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University’s mural class to shape upcoming art and placemaking efforts.

Kibby hopes completion of the South Allen Streetscape will come in the next few years. The Allen Park community is also in the process of revising and updating the TIF plan for what is to come and the things that will allow Allen Park to continue to grow and thrive.

As planning continues for the future, a focus on supporting Allen Park’s thriving environment for entrepreneurship, commerce and social gathering continues.

“We’ve experienced some constraints in 2020 and that means we are still working on our plan for the future,” says Kibby. “The whole process takes 9-12 months on average, and we hope to complete our path forward this fiscal year, as it has to pass approval through all the different tax jurisdictions.”

Three of those plans are revising ordinances to make developments easier, and laying the groundwork to attract additional small-scale manufacturing to Allen Park.

“With our current environment, creating a long-term plan relying on mostly retail is a bit dicey, as there are so many factors that impact success,” says Kibby. “So, that is one of the reasons why we are really excited about our plans to work with small-scale manufacturing, businesses with maybe 5-6 employees and other facilities. I think those two things will add a ton of variety to our business district.”

“We’re not turning away retail, we are just aiming to create an environment for sustainable growth,” says Kibby. “Having space to accommodate both with various storefronts and needs will be a helpful for everyone long-term.”

Other exciting things to come include the renovation of the Allen Park Theatre, which closed officially in 2019.

“We are working through plans on the theatre, and we have put out requests for proposals,” says Kibby. “A market analysis still needs to be done, but it will likely add upwards of 20-50 units of housing it just depends on the final developer and what the market will bear.”

The theatre was a downtown staple in Allen Park for more than 77 years, so new life is both welcome and bittersweet.

“The plan is for the marquee to remain, as a nod to Allen Park’s history.”




Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.
Jennifer Kibby: Q & A
Jennifer Kibby: Q & A

Issue Media: Sidebar Questions with Jennifer Kibby


What does a community need to do to be successful in attracting and keeping talent?

Quality of life is more important than ever. We’ve all heard the data about Millennials selecting a location before choosing a job. While we in Allen Park know about our great quality of life here, it’s a bit of a secret from the rest of the world. Our well-maintained, affordable neighborhoods; great schools; proximity to both metro Detroit and incredible natural resources; and of course, our authentic and vibrant downtown make Allen Park a highly desirable location for working families. As the employment landscape continues to shift away from corporate headquarters and more towards independent workers, we need to make Allen Park’s many assets better known. We have so much to offer both today’s employer and employees. It’s less a matter of changing ourselves to attract talent than just alerting talent to our city.


What's next? What projects are you most excited about?

There are so many great projects in the works, it’s hard to choose just one. Probably the biggest plan on deck is the South Allen Streetscape. The DDA has awarded more façade grants on S. Allen than most anywhere else in the district. The grants have helped make private buildings look great, but the public spaces? Not so much. S. Allen is a street to drive through, not a place to linger. Trees and landscaping are scarce. Pedestrians and vehicles unsafely mix on parking pads. Neighborhoods surround South Allen, but the commercial area is no place for their bikes, strollers, wheelchairs, or runners. The DDA streetscape will finally create a public space fitting the great businesses all located here.


I also look forward to the 2021 Made in Michigan Festival. In just five years, the DDA grew the event from a one-night, one-tent event for 500 people to a three-day, four-block extravaganza attracting crowds over 15,000. We had huge plans for 2020 until COVID and we look forward to its return.


What are some of your favorite ways the community evolved over your time there?

Seeing downtown vacancies fill is always gratifying, but I love watching those entrepreneurs grow and become part of the community. I love that the owner of Thai Vylai bought a house in Allen Park a few years after starting the restaurant. His daughter goes to the local school and his family are now true Allen Parkers. The City Coffeehouse owners are working on the Rat Pack Martini and Cigar Lounge – an entirely new concept for Allen Park. They have so many other plans up their sleeves too! PKSA has expanded south from one building to three while the Glass Onion Griddle has taken over the rest of the block to the north. The Taco Stand Taqueria started in Allen Park and in just a few years has added two additional locations outside the city. It is so gratifying to see downtown Allen Park as the foundation that nurtures both business and family growth.


The DDA Design Committee set a goal a few years ago to expand outdoor seating downtown. We started at City Coffeehouse, convincing the owner who came for a simple $2,000 window grant to instead install a garage door opening out to sidewalk seating. Over $50,000 later, the coffeehouse is entirely transformed inside and out, and business is thriving. Then Mick’s on Roosevelt installed a similar garage door and patio seating. Next, Rat Pack Martini and Cigar Lounge built French doors opening to outside seating. Trina O’Malley’s incorporated folding glass doors that entirely disappear as part of their amazing rehab. The DDA hopes there are more doors to come, but is pleased that the $5,000 pilot grant it awarded City Coffeehouse has grown into four new outdoor eating spaces and well over $150,000 private investment downtown.


What have you learned over Allen Park's evolution?

It’s sappy, but I’ve learned that Allen Parkers are amazing people who have worked together to build a wonderful community. When COVID shutdowns first started, the DDA ran a Take-Out to Win contest encouraging people to post pictures of carryout food they bought downtown. We didn’t just get photos, we got practical love letters about favorite restaurants. Then other people would chime in with their stories and pictures. It became apparent not only do Allen Parkers love and appreciate downtown, they went out of their way to support their favorite spots during hard times. Allen Park volunteers tirelessly turn out for DDA projects – everything from planting trees to filling hundreds of Easter eggs. All hours of the day and night, Allen Parkers turn out to help.


What is the most important thing for a community to focus on when building for the future?

Change is always hard. Yet, if Allen Park doesn’t continue to grow and evolve, we are doomed to decline. It sounds contradictory, but I think we need to both protect the things about our city that are most important and, at the same time, truly embrace change. It’s so easy to reject improvements out of hand merely because they are different from what we’ve always known. More change is coming, that’s guaranteed. It could be downtown housing, small-scale manufacturing, bike lanes, public plazas, driverless shuttles, or so much more. The DDA will always protect downtown Allen Park’s core essence – the independent owner-operated businesses, the walkable streets, the accessible scale. But the DDA will also always strive to improve this essence and introduce even more components to love. This is the only way to build a thriving downtown for the next century.