James Snider grew up in Farmington in the '80s and '90s, but when a friend suggested that he open a second location of his business there three years ago, Snider says he initially "brushed it off." As co-owner of the Hamburg Garage, Snider has embraced a community-oriented, downtown-based take on the traditional auto garage. He didn't remember his hometown as having the downtown core that he knew his business would need to thrive.
But when he finally returned home for the first time in decades, Snider was surprised by what he found.
"I took a look at downtown and all the new development that wasn't the downtown I remembered from my childhood and was impressed," he says. "Shame on me for not taking five minutes to come down here and actually see what was going on."
James Snider, Farmington Garage.
Snider and business partner Andy Massoll opened the Farmington Garage last year, and the arrival of their business is just one of many recent changes for Farmington.
"If you do a really slow blink from five or six years ago, you open your eyes and go, 'Wow, that's really cool,'" says Scott Freeman, general manager of the Farmington Civic Theater and a Farmington resident since 1989.
City officials are also actively preparing for Farmington's next step. The city recently updated its downtown master plan and is now preparing to update its citywide master plan.
"All the pieces are in place," says Farmington Downtown Development Authority (DDA) executive director Kate Knight. "We're really ready to execute."
"Slow and steady" change
Over the past decade or so, a few key public placemaking initiatives have helped to put Farmington on the map as a walkable destination. One significant development was the opening of Sundquist Pavilion in Riley Park in 2005. The pavilion and park replaced a parking lot and are now home to the popular Farmington Farmers Market and Rhythmz in Riley Park summer concert series.
"That pavilion and park ... are the focal point of the downtown," says Farmington economic and community development director Kevin Christiansen. "It's the community's gathering place. It's our town square."
Another influential project – a $3.2-million streetscape improvement project on Grand River in downtown Farmington – saw completion in 2009. The redesign expanded sidewalks and added crosswalks, benches, bike racks, and landscaping features. The project has been well-received by local merchants, who have welcomed the increased foot traffic it's spurred, and by the American Public Works Association, whose Michigan chapter named it Project of the Year in 2010.
Shifts in private development have followed as well. Manifold Ventures redeveloped the Groves retail center in 2013 to include outdoor seating and more parking, in conjunction with a long-delayed city streetscape improvement on adjacent Grove Street. And in 2015 Kimco Realty demolished and redeveloped a long-vacant site just south of Grand River on Farmington Road, which now houses a Fresh Thyme store.
"It's been very slow and steady," Freeman says. "There's been a great plan to get to where we are, and obviously there's still room for growth."
From retail to restaurants
These slow and steady changes to Farmington's physical landscape have driven some ongoing changes in the city's business mix.
"We're realizing a change in the use base from what was traditionally a more primarily retail-oriented downtown use base to a use base that now includes more entertainment, cultural, social, and recreational uses," Christiansen says. "Bars, restaurants, uses that create a different dynamic in our downtown – those have all been really good things."
Perhaps most notably, a diverse and creative food and drink scene has sprung up in the city. Recent years have seen the arrival of Basement Burger Bar (which has built a three-restaurant local chain off its original Farmington location), McClary Bros. Drinking Vinegar, Chive Kitchen vegan restaurant, Farmington Brewing Company, and other unique concepts.
Paul Gabriel is the co-owner of Browndog Treats, Drinks, and Eats, a "barlor" specializing in both alcoholic beverages and ice cream. After launching his business in Northville, Gabriel opened a second location in Farmington last year. He almost immediately formed a relationship with Farmington Brewing Company owners Jason Hendricks and Jason Schlaff, who now brew a salted caramel milk stout exclusively for sale in Browndog stores.
"People are open to collaborating," Gabriel says. "Small businesses are trying to grow in any way they can right now, and people love the local partnerships like that."Paul Gabriel at Browndog.
Snider says he's also noted that collaborative spirit among his fellow businesses in Farmington. He does his part by maintaining a community table full of local entrepreneurs' business cards, flyers for events, and brochures for local businesses.
"There's so many that I'm having to redevelop a new concept where we'll make a business community wall," Snider chuckles. "We're really intentional about getting involved with our local businesses."
More in store
Much more is in store for Farmington. Given the success of the Grand River streetscape project, Knight says she and other city staff "know we need to wrap the corner and continue that south on Farmington Road." The new downtown master plan advocates for more pedestrian connections between downtown and Farmington's neighborhoods, as well as better second-floor utilization of downtown Farmington buildings.
New residential development is underway as well. The Orchard condominium project, which the DDA purchased and resold to a new developer when it stalled post-recession, is moving along on the edge of downtown. And late last year, Farmington Public Schools sold their vacant Maxfield Training Center property to AC Acquisitions, which has planned a 155-unit apartment complex on the property just north of downtown.
The DDA is also currently working with Main Street Oakland County on a Public Art Blueprint that aims to engage locals in determining what kind of art they'd like to see in the community. Knight says that process is inspired in part by the Detroit Institute of Arts' Inside|Out program, which recently completed its third art installation in Farmington.
"It's been tremendously popular, and we know there's a need for more," Knight says.
Christiansen says that as a built-out community, Farmington's way forward is all about the city's downtown.
"Our goal and our challenge are to optimize our downtown to help it be all that it can be, to realize all the opportunity we have," he says. "The downtown in Farmington is the focus of the community. It's the heartbeat. It's the center. It's the gem."
And that downtown is exactly what Freeman says he and countless neighbors love about the city they call home.
"So many people think the way my wife and I do: 'Let's just go to town and hang out. We'll run into somebody that we know, and we'll enjoy it,'" he says. "You just know that something will be going on or you'll see somebody that you know, or you'll see some dogs that you get to pet. You don't have to have a plan."
All photos by David Lewinski.