Once the focal point of activity in Harper Woods, Eastland Center mall now sits almost entirely deserted. But on the evening of August 27, the mall's parking lot bustled in a way it hadn't in years – but not with cars or shoppers. The weekly Slow Roll bike ride used Eastland as its endpoint for the first time.
"It was like the good old days of Eastland at Christmastime, probably times two," says Harper Woods mayor Kenneth Poynter. "It was jam-packed."
The Slow Roll event was a one-off, but it also means a lot to Harper Woods. As the city's housing values have risen and its population has diversified, Harper Woods has seen ongoing challenges in revitalizing Eastland and its commercial real estate rates. The mall will go to auction on Oct. 9 with a starting bid of just $500,000, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Harper Woods Mayor Kenneth Poynter. Photo by David Lewinski.
But both city staff and residents have responded to those challenges in a variety of ways, including re-energizing a community of local volunteers, plotting a revitalization of the commercial corridor along Kelly Road, and beginning to envision a very different future for Eastland.
Poynter, who has lived his entire life in Harper Woods with the exception of his college years, says he hopes more people will be drawn to the city's large lots, strong community, and affordable access to downtown Detroit.
"This is the ideal place to live, and I can't understand why people have been overlooking it for so long," he says
"Times have changed"
In recent years Harper Woods has undergone a major transformation both in citizen community engagement and relations with neighboring communities.
In 2017 the city adopted a Neighborhoods Improvement Plan (NIP), which was the culmination of a series of public meetings that sought residents' input on what they loved and what they wanted to change in their community.
Several resident-led volunteer committees have since formed to advance the plan's goals. Margrit Poynter, who is married to Kenneth Poynter, is involved in the special events committee.
"It's been a great experience for me to meet people and to understand how much we are the same and how we want the same things," she says. "Instead of being frustrated, I can get involved. And when I am involved, I feel more empowered and I feel better."
Harper Woods economic and community development director Tyrone Hinton says the NIP and the meetings that created it are truly representative of the city's changing demographics. The city's African-American population nearly quadrupled between the 2000 and 2010 Census counts. White and black residents made up nearly equal proportions of Harper Woods' population in 2010, as opposed to the 85 percent white, 10 percent black population recorded in 2000.
"The beautiful thing that happened was that the old-timers, primarily Caucasian, were introduced to the newcomers, primarily African-American," Hinton says of the NIP meetings. "It's been a magical kind of thing since then."
Kenneth Poynter says that's one positive sign of an increasingly "more integrated" community – a fact also exemplified by shifting relations between Harper Woods and the Grosse Pointe communities to its east.
The Grosse Pointe News introduced regular coverage of Harper Woods in early 2017, and the annual Insider's Guide to the Pointes included Harper Woods for the first time this year. Hinton and Poynter celebrate both happenings as signs of warming relations and a more regional mindset between Harper Woods and the Pointes.
"Long before blacks started moving into Harper Woods, the Grosse Pointers have always looked down on Harper Woods as the stepchildren, that other group," Hinton says. "It's classism. Well, we're breaking that down. Times have changed."
Tyrone Hinton of Harper Woods' Neighborhood Improvement Center. Photo by David Lewinski.
Plotting a commercial revitalization
In addition to the social shifts happening in Harper Woods, residents and officials are also envisioning major changes to their city's physical environment. The NIP identified revitalizing Kelly Road's commercial strip as a major goal.
"It was kind of an economic thing," Margrit Poynter says. "We wanted new people to come into our neighborhood. We wanted people to move to Harper Woods. We wanted younger folks. We knew that Detroit was having a rebirth and we felt that we were in a perfect position, logistically, where people might want to buy homes in our neighborhoods."
In 2017 the city opened a new Neighborhood Economic Development Center (NEDC) on Kelly Road to serve as a physical center for the area's revitalization. The NEDC now serves as a home base for a Harper Woods police officer dedicated to the area, a secondary municipal office, and a gathering place for resident volunteers.
Volunteers and city officials have joined forces on Kelly Road cleanup efforts including removing trees and brush, and in March a group of University of Michigan urban planning students completed a study on improving the area.
"In our dream of dreams, we'd like to make Kelly Road like Nine Mile Road in Ferndale, in terms of the ambience and the kind of places that would be there," Hinton says.
City officials also have high hopes for creating a similar energy just around the corner on the outskirts of Eastland, thanks to one recently established business and another on the way. The local Starters Bar and Grill chain opened its fourth location in a former Chili's just outside the mall in 2017, and jazz-themed restaurant They Say recently submitted plans to open its second location in a former Applebee's a short distance away.
Hinton says Starters has become a hugely popular destination for the area. He hopes They Say will provide another economic boost, noting that the establishment will "offer a level of eating and entertainment" parallelled locally only by the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in Grosse Pointe Farms.
Harper Woods' city manager Joe Rheker. Photo by David Lewinski.
Looking further down the road, Harper Woods officials hope for a much broader revitalization of Eastland. The property has frustrated city officials, who have made ill-fated attempts to draw condo developers and other new businesses to the site owned by New York-based Spinoso Real Estate Group, and they don't lack for vision when it comes to reinventing the site. City manager Joe Rheker envisions a "civic campus" on the property incorporating a school, municipal offices, and greenspace.
"Eastland is supposed to become a village for people to work and people to live," Hinton says. "Shopping is incidental."