As a self-professed "coffee-shop kid", Kenneth Bracker fondly remembers the Royal Oak and Ferndale of the mid-1990s, when he, along with every goth kid in metro Detroit, used to hang out in the dozen or so independent coffee houses that sprang up in the pre-Starbucks era.
"It just became this little coffee shop Mecca," says Bracker. "So as a teenager, I would just bounce around between all the coffee shops."
So when Bracker, his wife Jessica, and their two daughters moved to Hazel Park about a decade ago, he began roasting beans at home. And when Jessica and the girls decided they wanted to open up a coffee shop in Hazel Park, Kenneth was on board. It would be a great way for the girls to learn how to run a business. Not only that, but it would give him a connection to those halcyon coffee house days of his youth.
"And so I said, 'sure, if you and the girls want to run it, I'll roast the coffee'," said Bracker. They looked for a space in Ferndale, but quickly realized that prices had gone up considerably since the coffee shop heyday of the nineties.
Jessica Bracker, Civitas Coffee
So the family decided to launch the Civitas Coffee in Hazel Park near their home, in a building on 9 Mile that had sat vacant for a decade. Bracker thinks Hazel Park is still a few years away from the kind of development boom that has transformed neighboring Ferndale. But he knows it's coming because he hears it in the conversations of his patrons, who frequently include city council members and nonprofit leaders.
"Like 70% of the conversations in here are people talking about what we can do to make the city better," said Bracker. "That's a huge part of the dialog.'
One of those people is resident and Downtown Development Authority board member Mike McFall, who launched the "Downtown Hazel Park Initiative" in 2018 in an effort to amp up the city's marketing efforts. McFall has single-handedly launched a website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts in an effort to promote and connect businesses in the city. He sees a lot of room for growth of independent enterprises in the city, especially arts-focused businesses. He also notes that Hazel Park has begun to attract a significant gay community, something he attributes to many younger gay people being priced out of the traditional "gayborhoods" in Royal Oak and Ferndale. He hopes the city can grow while hanging on to its sense of community.
"I would really like to make sure that we retain that small-town feel,"' says McFall. "It takes community involvement. Getting neighbors to talk to each other and look out for each other. Those are the things that some other cities have started to lose when they don't know their neighbors."
One of the challenges faced by the city's DDA is its size; the district essentially encompasses all of the commercial thoroughfares in the city, including 8 Mile, 9 Mile, 10 Mile, John R, and Dequindre.
Jake Slivatz is a planning commissioner. He grew up in Hazel Park but moved to Royal Oak for a few years, but didn't feel at home. So he moved back to Hazel Park five years ago. When he returned, it was a different city. Slivatz says he has known three Hazel Parks: pre-recession, recession, and post-recession.
"I realized a lot of things had changed," he said. "So I feel as we move forward, we need to merge a lot more of the old with the new; who we were and who we are now."
Being on the planning commission is one way Slivatz feels he can have a hand in that process. He's pushing for updates to design and building standards and code enforcement, not only to help reverse some of the blight that took root during the recession, but to prepare the city for the wave of development he believes is materializing.
For assistant city manager Jeff Campbell, parts of the city have become almost unrecognizable when he thinks back to his first days on the job nearly a decade ago. It was a city that had its downtown swallowed by I-75 and had never quite found its center of gravity.
"Originally downtown Hazel Park was along 9 Mile. So we're one of the very few communities where I-75 truly interrupted the fabric of the town. And what we are trying to do is figure out where to go from here."
Campbell says that north John R has "sort of organically emerged" as the town center, partially because of the sizes of the buildings and partially due to the catalytic effect of Mabel Grey and Joebar. The city has seen significant development in recent years. The 3-acre, 575,000 square-foot Tri-County Commerce Center industrial development by Ashley Capital on the site of the shuttered Hazel Park Raceway is now fully occupied with three tenants. Construction on a townhome development is underway in front of that development along 10 Mile--the first significant new residential construction hazelPark has seen in decades, according to Campbell.
And of course, the much talked about mixed-use development on John R announced in May that will replace a former CVS across from Mabel Gray has the potential to create a bonafide walkable downtown in Hazel Park.
"It's potentially huge," said Campbell.
Future mixed-use development site on John R
But market uncertainty continues to be a factor slowing down the development pipeline.
"People want a lot more security than we can provide at this time," said Campbell."They want certainty about the market, and I can't tell them how the market's going to be or what the assessed values are going to be in the future."
In the meantime, the city continues to work on its master plan with McKenna Associates, which Campbell expects to be completed by the end of 2019 and has so far gathered more than 300 residents' input.
The focus of the effort so far has centered on quality of life improvements, something Campbell says speaks to the city's road diet, parks, and bike-ability efforts. And of course, creating a walkable downtown.
"The goal is to create a downtown where people want to congregate," said Campbell. "A place where people can walk and feel like they're a part of the community... roam around and explore a little bit and feel the true uniqueness and identity of Hazel Park."