Oak Park reinvents itself, focuses on service and growth

Steve Gold has lived in Oak Park for over 60 years, but he says the city's morale hit a truly historic low after the Great Recession. Gold saw his home's property value plummet from $145,000 to $35,000 as his city teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.


But in the few short years since then, Gold has witnessed a turnaround in his community that's been just as remarkable.


"I think that a momentum has been established," he says. "The mental attitude of the city has gone from despair during an economic downturn to hopefulness. The city just feels different than it did five or six years ago. It feels alive."


That's thanks to multiple factors, including a regime change in city government that's implemented a service-oriented mentality and pro-growth policies. And with a variety of plans in place to continue attracting new businesses and residents to Oak Park, many in the city seem to think the positive change is just getting started.


Regime change


Significant changes in the city began in 2011 when Marian McClellan was elected as the city's first new mayor in 22 years. City manager Erik Tungate, whose background at that point consisted primarily of working for economic development organizations including the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, was appointed to eliminate the $2 million budget deficit the city was facing at the time.


Tungate immediately set about encouraging all departments to cut wasteful spending. He offers examples of cuts ranging from saving $10,000 a year by getting rid of a dysfunctional postage machine to saving "a couple million" by switching from a fully funded employee healthcare system to a pay-as-you-go self-funded system. The city is also about to enter into an agreement with Ferndale, Royal Oak, and Madison Heights to create a public doctor's office for their employees.


Today, Oak Park's financial outlook is healthy.


The new administration brought other pivotal staffing developments with it. Public safety director Steve Cooper, hired in 2012, last year was named Police Administrator of the Year by the Police Officer Association of Michigan. In 2014 the city also hired its first community and economic development director, Kimberly Marrone.


"I really think we've got one of the most dynamic management teams of any local unit of government in the state, and I'm not just saying that," Tungate says. "We've got a wonderful group of people that guide this city and point it in the right direction."


New policies


Beyond orchestrating Oak Park's financial turnaround, the city's new administration has implemented a variety of game-changing policies. Some are simple but innovative takes on public outreach, such as the public safety department's ice cream truck, from which police officers serve free ice cream to city kids during the summer.


Tungate says the ice cream truck, a repurposed city van stocked with donated ice cream, was suggested by a detective who read about a similar project in a Massachusetts police department. As the city's public safety department has bounced back from recession-era layoffs, the initiative is aimed at building positive relationships between police and their communities.


"Really, from a PR perspective, what could be better than ice cream?" Tungate laughs. "It's worked wonders, in my opinion. The goodwill that's generated alone is tremendous."


The city has also worked hard to attract new development. In 2015 it approved a $30 million development project, the largest in the city's history, for a 300,000-square-foot shipping facility on Greenfield Road north of Eight Mile Road. The facility is now occupied by FedEx.


The city also has two affordable, "missing middle"-style housing developments in the pipeline, with Jefferson Oaks currently under construction and Coolidge Place set to begin construction next year.


Some policy changes have attracted controversy, like the debate over Oak Park's decades-long ban on alcohol sales in restaurants. City officials legalized beer and wine sales in restaurants in 2013, and McClellan and Tungate both campaigned for a successful ballot measure allowing liquor sales in 2015. The city has since issued three Class C liquor licenses, most recently to Union Joints, the restaurant group that operates metro Detroit hotspots including Vinsetta Garage and the Clarkston Union.


Union Joints is currently in the process of renovating the Albert Kahn-designed former WWJ transmitter building, on Eight Mile Road east of Coolidge Road, as a new restaurant. Union Joints co-owner Curt Catallo says he was attracted by the building's "awesome presence" and Oak Park's convenient location between Detroit and numerous suburbs, as well as by the support he felt for this project.


"We think Oak Park is on the right track with or without us," he says. "We're just glad to play a part. That stretch of Eight Mile is so unique. It's in the heart of everything and yet there's plenty of breathing room. It's just rare to find somewhere like that, let alone in the center of a bustling metropolis."


Building a downtown from scratch


Marrone says she expects the as-yet-unnamed Union Joints establishment to "go a long way towards helping us attract additional restaurants into the community." And that's going to be crucial for Oak Park's planned next big step: transforming the existing small commercial hub at Nine Mile Road and Coolidge Highway into a walkable downtown with destination businesses. The city recently received funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments for its planned Nine Mile redesign, which is tentatively set to begin construction in summer 2018.


The redesign would follow the lead Ferndale established with the "road diet" it implemented along Nine Mile in 2014, reducing traffic lanes and adding bike lanes, bike racks, and pocket parks. In some places, street parking will also be added to help attract businesses that Marrone hopes will include boutique shops, restaurants, and brewpubs.


Peteet cake. Photo by David Lewinski"It's kind of a tired corridor right now," Marrone says. "It's not landscaped. It's not kept up very well with the businesses. So we think this is going to help by adding some additional landscaping and some community parks."


The idea has the full support of Patrick Peteet, owner of Peteet's Famous Cheesecakes on Nine Mile just west of Coolidge. Peteet was raised in Oak Park and ran his dad's business, Peteet Realty, in the city for 20 years until the market crash. He founded the cheesecake business in 2010, and says that having more destination businesses in its vicinity "wouldn't hurt at all."


"I think it would bring the community a little bit closer and give people something to do within the community ... instead of people going out to other areas to enjoy themselves," Peteet says.


Marrone notes that Oak Park is still an affordable place to live. The city stands to capitalize on that fact, and its central location to Detroit and surrounding destination suburbs, by establishing a burgeoning destination of its own.


But Tungate says diversity has been and will remain the city's key value. Gold recalls the massive influx of Jewish residents in the '50s and Chaldean residents in the '70s. As of the 2010 census, the city's population was 57 percent African-American and 37 percent Caucasian. Tungate states firmly that the city should remain accessible to any who want to live there.


"If we should get to a point where we find ourselves in a situation like Royal Oak or Midtown or Corktown, where it's not affordable, then we certainly have to take additional steps policy-wise, to make sure that our city is not being overpriced and pushing people out or not letting people come in," he says. "One thing we don't want to become is an exclusive city."

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