Dearborn to unify downtown districts along Michigan Avenue

Among Metro Detroit's inner-ring suburbs, the City of Dearborn stands apart.

For one thing, it's Michigan's 8th-largest city, home to approximately 97,000 people. For another, it's diverse. About 40 percent of the population are Arab Americans, with smaller but growing Latino and African American communities. It’s also young, with a median age of 32.8 (Michigan's median age is 39.8).

The city is home to several important regional and global institutions, including the Arab American National Museum, the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus, Beaumont Health-Oakwood, the newly re-branded Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, the Fairlane Town Center, Henry Ford College and, of course, the world headquarters of Ford Motor Company.

And at a time when suburbs across the region and nation are struggling to create walkable downtown districts, Dearborn possesses not one but two distinct such areas: East Downtown Dearborn, known for its ethnic diversity and emerging arts and culture scene, and West Dearborn, known for its upscale restaurants and nightlife.

Connecting these two areas is a 3.5-mile stretch of Michigan Avenue, a dense, high-traffic commercial strip featuring small businesses, ethnic bakeries and restaurants, the city's civic center, the Ford Community & Performing Arts Centers, the John D. Dingell Transit Center, and the Ford Headquarters campus.

The city is working to leverage these assets by better coordinating them, both operationally and through identity and branding. Their hope is to create a cohesive and compelling picture of a dynamic and evolving city that functions as a single entity.

Barry Murray. Photo by Doug Coombe.Barry Murray, director of community and economic development for the city, thinks the area's assets combined with its proximity to downtown Detroit can add up to a second Midtown. 

"We're trying to represent the whole corridor with these two great destinations in it," says Murray. "Then, these two great districts, which are surrounded by neighborhoods, could be like a little Midtown, right?"

The endeavor has great potential, but it won't be simple.

"The obvious challenge is just with geography," says Michael Kirk, a local architect who chairs the Dearborn Economic Vitality Committee, which is attempting to bridge the two downtowns. "I often say that Dearborn has three parts, east and west Dearborn and Ford Motor Company. Ford owns about 25 percent of the city that kind of cuts right down through the middle on Michigan Avenue. Our challenge will be to bridge that distance."
Michael Kirk. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Kirk thinks the way forward will involve encouraging business people in both downtowns to cooperate on promotions and other activities, and then over time, work harder to refer customers back and forth. The city's first dual downtown event, Dearborn restaurant week, will launch in February and is designed to do just that.

Cristina Sheppard-Decius, who joined the city in 2015 as director of the West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority, is working to coordinate activities between the two downtowns. She comes from another inner-ring suburb, Ferndale, where she spent 15 years directing that city's Downtown Development Authority.

"The two downtowns are likes barbells on each end, connected by Michigan Avenue," she says. "We want to work towards improving and revitalizing both districts. What we've found is that outsiders don't understand that there are two different areas. They just know Dearborn. So we have to distinguish the east and west districts. We're made up of a wide tapestry of people and places."

A decade of development

The past decade has attracted a series of notable plans and developments in both the east and west downtowns.

In 2005, East Downtown Dearborn got a $16.8 million shot in the arm with the opening of the Arab American National Museum. In 2008, the former Montgomery Ward site in East Downtown Dearborn was redeveloped into a medical complex. According to Murray, that project brought $50 million in investment, and another $20 million is expected to build senior housing and additional retail on the site.

In 2011, an older Kroger building was remodeled into the locally owned and operated Dearborn Fresh supermarket, offering halal meats, and in 2016, a $16.5 million rehab of the old city hall in East Downtown Dearborn was completed, launching City Hall ArtSpace Lofts. The project offers 53 affordable live-work spaces to working artists along with a community gallery space. The city has also commissioned a study to repurpose two large, empty parking lots on the north side of Michigan Avenue into a mixed-use development.

Meanwhile, the expansion of Green Brain Comics, the relocation of Stormy Records, and the success of long-term stalwarts like Blick Art Supply along with newcomers like Yemeni Mocha Bistro show strength on the small business side.

"On the east side we are developing our identity around an arts and culture base," says Dan Merritt, co-owner of Green Brain Comics and chair of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority. "Culturally and identity-wise, our racial mix is very different [from West Dearborn], though we're getting more and more crossover. The east has a substantial population of Arab-Americans from all over the Middle East. Traditionally we've had Polish and Italian neighborhoods. We're getting more African Americans into the neighborhood. It's great to see that diversification can continue and evolve."

Dan Merritt at Green Brain Comics. Photo by Doug Coombe.

More recent development activity has marked West Dearborn. In 2013, the city was selected for a planning grant through the Michigan Municipal League to focus on transit-oriented development surrounding the Amtrak station. In late 2014, the $28.2 million John D. Dingell Transit Center opened.

In December, a $60 million commitment by Ford Land Development Corp., with the help of the Michigan Strategic Fund, was announced. The project will redevelop an empty stretch of Michigan Avenue in West Dearborn, anchored by the historic Wagner Hotel, into a mixed-use center with first-floor retail and upstairs offices for Ford employees.

"Approximately 650 staff in two new buildings on Michigan and Monroe and about 50,000 square feet of new retail are expected, which should give a boost to the downtown area," says Kirk.

Meanwhile, newcomers like Brome Burger, Yogurtopia and the now-under-construction Ford's Garage—a retro burger and beer chain with four Florida locations, have enlivened the small business scene in West Dearborn.

One Downtown Dearborn

The city envisions the whole of Michigan Avenue connecting the two downtowns as its Main Street, referring to the entire area as "Downtown Dearborn." Their ultimate hope is to gain certification through the Michigan Main Street Center for both downtown areas.

In 2016, the city adopted five "transformative strategies" to guide future planning and development in Downtown Dearborn: image, walkable public spaces, a cohesive community, appeal to millennials, and retail diversity.

Now, they are working to implement this vision through the four-point Main Street approach, which focuses on economic vitality, organization, promotions and design. It's going to require plenty of coordination, beginning with the work of two downtown development authority boards that had, until recently, operated largely independently of one another.

Because of the number of people involved and the spread-out geography, Sheppard-Decius is opting to take a streamlined approach. Instead of eight separate Main Street committees (four for each town), she's initiated two committees focused on the entirety of Downtown Dearborn; a Promotions Committee is taking on the role of both promotion and organization, and an Economic Vitality Committee is taking on the role of both economic vitality and design. 

"The goal is to create an umbrella organization made up of members of each board," says Sheppard-Decius, "as well as additional stakeholders who are major components and assets to Michigan Avenue."

Cristina Sheppard-Decius. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Future actions, according to Kirk, will include the development of unified wayfinding systems to help newcomers better navigate Downtown Dearborn. He also expects the city to start working on form-based zoning with guidelines to govern urban design characteristics and architectural aspects like massing, density, window openings, etc., which will help lead to more visual cohesion within the districts and along Michigan Avenue.

"I think that Dearborn's got a fascinating tradition to build on," says Kirk, "both with younger people and young-at-hearts as well. Both areas are strong residential communities with an industrial and manufacturing history. We have that grittiness, which is why I think a lot of people are flocking to downtown Detroit. So, our hope is we can build on that."
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