How downtown Farmington found its outdoor vibe

These days, when you walk or drive through downtown Farmington in the evening, you’ll often see crowds gathered outdoors to enjoy a meal or drinks together.

 

You’ll hear conversation and laughter (and occasionally live music); smell the just-prepared food on the tables, and see dog-walking locals stop to hug someone they know.

 

But downtown Farmington hasn’t always had this inviting, energetic vibe – and it’s no accident that it’s developed over the course of the past decade or so.

 

“We’ve been talking about this for at least fifteen years – from the time I got involved with the Planning Commission,” says Farmington Mayor (and architect) Steven Schneemann. “ … At that time, there was a real need for a downtown center. There was no big gathering place downtown. … This led to the development [in 2005] of that big area where Sundquist Pavilion and Riley Park is. But there was no street life, either. There was nothing to draw people out.”

Patio life in downtown Farmington. Photo by David Lewinski

 

Back then, John Cowley & Sons’ Irish pub and restaurant was one of the only places you could dine outdoors while in the heart of downtown; and before Farmington’s $3.2 million Grand River Avenue streetscape improvement project – which expanded sidewalks, added crosswalks, benches, bike racks, and landscaping – began in 2009, there was little room for growth.

 

“The whole thing comes down to how you design it,” says Schneemann. “Before the streetscape project, we just had two big sidewalks of concrete separated by three and a half lanes of traffic,” says Schneemann. “Even if there had been more places where you could sit outside, why would you want to? Now, with the fencing and the landscaping – yes, you’re still just 5 or 6 feet away from the cars going by, but there’s a row of shrubs, and trees, and curbs, so there’s more of a sense of security. It feels more comfortable, like a place where you can really sit and relax.”

 

So people do just that nearly every night in Farmington these days, at venues as varied as Basement Burger Bar, the Farmington Brewing Company, Browndog Barlor, and Los Tres Amigos – alongside non-Grand River spots like Mi.Mosa, Dagwood’s Deli, Coldstone Creamery, Chive, and Sidecar. (Plus, Coldwater-based Blue Hat Coffee, now preparing to open a second location in the Farmington Masonic Lodge at Grand River and Farmington Rd., plans to have patio seating.)

Patio life in downtown Farmington. Photo by David Lewinski

 

“I love the feel of Grand River Ave. on a Friday night, when the patios are buzzing, and the lights are twinkling at the Farmington Civic Theater, and there’s a crowd mulling around, listening to live music Out Front [a Civic performance series] on the sidewalk while waiting for the movie to start,” says Kate Knight, executive director of Farmington’s DDA. “That people formula is a direct result of the streetscape investment made by the DDA a decade ago. A conscious design decision was made to expand the sidewalks to include outdoor seating, and to slow traffic through town, and to add soft green juniper hedge to shield users from the heat and slush of the street.”

 

Jason Hendricks, co-owner of the Farmington Brewing Company, says he hadn’t prioritized outdoor seating capacity when considering venues.

 

“We were new to the service industry and didn’t realize the impact it would have,” says Hendricks. “We always see a boost in the summer, and the patio has a lot to do with it. Outdoor seating allows us to add more seating to a small space.”

 

In addition, when passersby see groups of people socializing and enjoying themselves, it’s like a Siren call to join in the fun.

 

“We all feel better when the sun touches our skin,” says Hendricks. “ … Social connection combined with vitamin D brings us joy.”

 

But social connection doesn’t only occur over food.

 

“I think the conversation goes beyond just outdoor dining and drinking venues,” says Knight, who also cited public art; crowds gathering for a shoe release outside Plus Skate Shop; and outdoor yoga. “ … We’re letting people know that this place matters. … It’s building the space, and opening the box of possibility for hosting the community.”

 

Indeed. Schneemann pointed out that from an urban design perspective, “you want the edge between public and private spaces to be as permeable as possible, so that you don’t have separations. … The ideal is when you don’t know where the barriers are.”

 

With that in mind, Farmington’s leadership is looking to keep the momentum going on Grand River – filling in some gaps that undercut a sense of flow in the commercial landscape – and to execute, in the near future, yet another streetscape plan.
Patio life in downtown Farmington. Photo by David Lewinski

 

“We know it’s important to think ahead with a vision for what you want the community to look like,” says Knight. “We’re leaning into some progress on starting the Farmington Road streetscape. The same design vocabulary we used on Grand River will round the corner and flow into Farmington Road. We know it will spur investment from existing businesses who are screaming for the improvements. And we fully expect it to attract new parties to our downtown market who know what to do with great built space.”

 

All this, of course, is aimed at making Farmington not only a great community for those living here but a potential destination for visitors.

 

“We want Farmington to feel like a place where cool stuff is going on,” says Schneemann. “If you drive down the main road of a town on a Friday at seven, and there’s nobody out on the streets, and no activity – that’s pretty much how it was here fifteen years ago. … To me, it seemed kind of dead. But it wasn’t. … There was activity happening behind the walls of these businesses. We just needed to bring that out more and make the vibrancy of downtown much more visible.”

 
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