Berkley is a startup city doing its 'own thing'

Berkley's walkable, business-dense downtown is surrounded by other walkable, business-dense downtowns. But Berkley residents and business owners couldn't be more emphatic – or more proud – about differentiating their community from its neighbors.

"It's not a Birmingham. It's not a Ferndale. It's not a Royal Oak," says Andy Gilbert, incoming chair of the Berkley Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and owner of Berkley Eyewear and Local Sunglass Co. "It's going to be its own thing."

There's a sense of high enthusiasm in Berkley about the community's potential to become a destination on the scale of one of its higher-profile neighbors. That's thanks to a variety of factors, including a burgeoning "second downtown" on Coolidge Highway, a growing number of popular public events, proliferating retail shops, and a city government geared towards supporting business and development.

But residents and business owners will tell you that what really sets their town apart is what Gilbert describes as "an eclectic vibe that isn't real big." Jeri Brand, owner of Tootie and Tallulah's boutique, puts it a slightly different way. Although Berkley has started to draw more outside visitors in recent years, she says it's still very much a small town where residents eagerly patronize their downtown businesses.
Andy Gilbert, owner of Berkley Eyewear
"People tell you what street they live on," she says. "I always think that's funny. When you think about it, no one really does that if it's more than two square miles."

Berkley does indeed clock in at a total area of 2.62 square miles – which might seem too small to support two legitimate downtown strips, but that isn't stopping the business owners on Coolidge. Twelve Mile Road is still home to Berkley's traditional downtown, featuring the iconic Berkley Theatre marquee and longtime businesses like Catching Fireflies. But Coolidge has recently seen the arrival of numerous new retail shops aiming to make their neighborhood a destination of its own.

Brand remembers quite a different scene when she opened her business on Coolidge in 2010.

"There was practically nothing on Coolidge when we got here," she says.

But times have changed. Brand's business became so successful that she expanded into a second building, called "The Annex," across the street. (Somewhat ironically for a Coolidge pioneer, she's currently preparing to consolidate her two locations into a single building on Twelve Mile.) But as her own business has blossomed, she's seen numerous others spring up around her on Coolidge – like June and December, a new store selling Troy resident Katie Forte's cards, towels, home furnishings, and more.

June and December co-owner Nick Forte says a "small-town feel" drew him and his wife to Berkley and the Coolidge strip.
Berkley, Michigan
"We felt like there was a lot of potential for growth," he says.

Gilbert, who also opened his business in 2010 on Coolidge, says he's pleased to see how the strip has taken off.

"The businesses on Coolidge have been working hard for anything to happen down here that brings awareness to the other part of Berkley," he says. "And it's happening. It's a slow progression, but it's moving."

A key factor in that slow progression is the increasing number of events that help bring people to both of Berkley's main drags. Last year's inaugural Berkley Street Art Fest, the city's first major event to be held in the Coolidge area, was so successful that this year it will move from an alley just off Coolidge to shut down three blocks of Coolidge itself. This year also brings the return of Art Bash and the County Oakland Irish Fest on Twelve Mile, as well as Ladies Night Out, which features extended hours, giveaways, and specials at businesses in both downtown strips.

Business owners say those events have been highly successful in generating new interest in Berkley and their businesses.

Gilbert says that during last year's Ladies' Night Out, he was surprised to find that most of his customers were coming from outside Berkley – some from as far as Lansing.

"They were just coming down to have fun and see the shops," he says. "I don't sell much on those nights, so I take that 30 seconds to introduce them to what we're doing and why we're here. And I hear often, 'Oh my God, Berkley's changed so much.'"
Brand echoes that sentiment.

"I think Berkley as a community is just glad to see the traffic and people coming from other communities for a day with the girlfriends," she says. "You know, 'Let's check out the shops in Berkley.' That just never was, several years back."

Berkley city manager Matthew Baumgarten says the proliferation of new events is part of a concerted strategy on the part of the city, the DDA, and the Berkley Area Chamber of Commerce.

"There's a lot more emphasis on opportunities to bring people downtown," he says.

The city is taking a variety of other actions to improve both residents' and visitors' experiences in Berkley. Last November brought the installation of two new pedestrian crossings on Coolidge, and another new crossing will be installed this summer on Twelve Mile. Baumgarten says the city doesn't want people to feel they have to get in and out of a car repeatedly to travel from place to place in Berkley.

"That's not good for anybody, and it's certainly not the image that we want for Berkley," he says. "We want to have active sidewalks and give people a chance to enjoy our streetscaping and walk past a business they didn't know was there before."

Berkley officials are also interested in pursuing Redevelopment Ready Community (RRC) status for their city through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Baumgarten says the city has completed the necessary self-evaluation and studied best practices for the program, which helps cities streamline their development approval process in a publicly visible way.

Baumgarten says he found the RRC process "very fruitful" in Lathrup Village, where he previously worked as city administrator. He says RRC practices are helpful in preventing a city from losing development projects due to bureaucratic hold-ups.

"There's nothing wrong with saying no to a project if it's not the right project for you," Baumgarten says. "There is something wrong with taking 18 months to two years to say no."

Berkley residents, business owners, and officials all seem to agree that the revitalization of their town is still just beginning, and they're taking small steps in what will be a long process. Robyn Coden opened Sum Girls Boutique, a fashion store aimed at mother-daughter duos, in October as an extension of her long-running blog, Dim Sum and Doughnuts. She says Berkley is a "startup," just like her business, and she's optimistic about the future of both her store and its city.

"I think that there is a great heartbeat to this area," she says. "I think it's still really kind of raw. I think that it can only go up at this point."

Photos by Anthony Lanzilote
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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere