Dearborn's older buildings 'open door' to new development

Dan Merritt says there's one key factor that's kept Green Brain Comics in East Dearborn for 35 years: affordability.


"We bought our building about five years ago," Merritt says. "This is not really something that a lot of comics specialty stores can do, owning their own property."


Merritt, a member of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority (DDA), echoes the sentiments of many East Dearborn stakeholders when he says the neighborhood is currently "really positioned to take advantage of that economic strength."


"We're just a few minutes away from downtown Detroit and just a few minutes away from West Dearborn, both of which have quickly accelerating real estate costs," he says. "We're on a main trunk (Michigan Avenue) that can get us back and forth to both of those places and still be affordable for small business."

Green Brain Comics


Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the East and West Dearborn Downtown Development Authorities, notes that the East Dearborn DDA and others are trying to catalyze an arts and culture district in the neighborhood. That's been helped along in large part by the opening of the City Hall Artspace Lofts, which have brought numerous artists into residential, studio, and commercial spaces in the neighborhood. Sheppard-Decius says there are plenty of other low-rent opportunities for artists and others to put down roots in the neighborhood beyond Artspace, as well.


Neighborhood stakeholders are working to continue raising East Dearborn's profile through a new design incentive program and by spreading the word about vacant properties that have commercial potential. Jay Kruz, the owner of Retro Image Antiques and DDA member, says he hopes to continue building what he describes as a "really stable" business district.


"People don't just come and go," he says. "A lot of businesses have been here for years."


Open Door Dearborn


The buildings in East Dearborn's downtown strip have been around for many years as well – and a new program called Open Door Dearborn is aiming to bring them up to date. Funded by the East and West Dearborn DDAs, the program offers three different levels of grant awards to help business owners pay for design improvements to their buildings.


"We are hoping that our district will become a little bit more attractive to people who are on Michigan Avenue and in the area," Kruz says. "We have older buildings. A lot of them have facades that were covered over in the '70s and '80s. We have some beautiful architecture that just hasn't been exposed."


The Open Door Dearborn program offers "Level 1" design incentive grants of up to $2,500 for exterior design assistance and signage improvement. "Level 2" grants of up to $5,000 are available to help startup businesses with a variety of construction and restoration costs. "Level 3" grants of up to $10,000 are available for facade improvements or expansions and developments. Grants are available for businesses in both West and East Dearborn.


Sheppard-Decius says the DDAs can give out up to $40,000 for each of the downtown areas and she hopes to serve 10 to 15 businesses per year through the program. She says the DDAs realized that they needed to be more competitive with other metro Detroit downtown districts that offer incentive programs for new or existing businesses.


"We definitely noted that we need to provide incentives for businesses and property owners to not only make improvements but to do them right and to do them with the quality that we're expecting for the downtowns," she says. "Sometimes that quality costs a little bit more, so we want to make sure we're providing them the support to do that."


Kruz says he hopes the program will help make newer businesses in East Dearborn aware that the city is there to help them, as well as increasing the "unification and beautification" of the downtown strip.


"We're not just cookie-cutter, glass-storefront, glass-door places," he says. "I think what we're trying to do is show that we're not a mall type of situation. We're not a strip mall. We're not a drive-through district."


Vacant properties


Despite the advantages for businesses in East Dearborn, the downtown's vacancy rate is still a rather high 17% compared to West Dearborn's 4%. Sheppard-Decius says East Dearborn has "everything from big to small" for those seeking new space for their business. Here are a few of her top picks for East Dearborn spaces with commercial potential.


- Dearborn City Hall Artspace's Connector building, 13615 Michigan Ave.: The commercial space connecting Artspace's residential spaces recently came on the market. "That's a great location with some smaller spaces for those who are looking for that small, creative space to do their work," Sheppard-Decius says.


- Dearborn Town Center, 4700 Schaefer Rd.: This large property offers 140,000 square feet of main-floor retail space and upper-floor office space. "We could actually house some substantial-sized companies that are looking for office space or coworking space or medical space," Sheppard- Decius says. "There's a lot of opportunity there and we can break out some smaller spaces as needed."


- 13846 Michigan Ave.: This corner location offers a variety of use options. "I think it would make for a really good retail space on the main floor, and the upper floor would be really great for artists," Sheppard-Decius says. "There are some big windows up there, so it would be really good for coworking." She notes it's one of multiple currently vacant properties on Michigan that offer great commercial frontage, including 13810 Michigan Ave. "You have a lot of visibility with those," Sheppard-Decius says.

13846 Michigan Avenue


- 13650 Michigan Ave.: The former Comerica Bank building next to the Arab American National Museum offers 5,700 square feet of commercial space. "That building is amazing-looking and would make for an awesome venue for a restaurant," Sheppard-Decius says. "Behind there, we're looking to expand the pedestrian area so there could be more outdoor dining space for that property."

13650 Michigan Ave


These aren't the only possibilities for business owners considering East Dearborn. Sheppard-Decius says the downtown's affordability presents ample commercial opportunities.


"It really lets you get into the marketplace and get established," she says.

All photos by Stephen Koss.

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