Walkable Suburbs: Rochester connects people with downtown, trails

Welcome back to Metromode’s “Walkable Suburbs” series, where we take a walk in some of the metro Detroit region’s least car-dependent places to live, work and recreate. We’ll meet the people who live there, the business owners who take advantage of the pedestrian-friendly environment, and the city officials responsible for keeping things walkable.

Along the way, we hope you’ll find new areas to explore and learn about how communities are creating and sustaining the kinds of places that experts say is so key to attracting and retaining young talent.

Our third neighborhood is Rochester, an Oakland County mainstay that recently celebrated its bicentennial. Rochester is known for its wide sidewalks, Norman Rockwell-like downtown and huge holiday displays that bring people from across the nation to see its bright lights.

We hope you enjoy the walk. If you’d like to nominate a walkable neighborhood in metro Detroit, email Metromode’s Managing Editor Nina Ignaczak at nina@metromodemedia.com.

For a city that’s more than 200 years old and with a downtown straight out of a classic movie, Rochester prides itself on having some of the most stylish retailers, upscale eateries, trendy events and walkable environments in Metro Detroit.

That is why the Oakland County city attracts young professionals, families looking for activities and entertainment as well as retirees who feel connected to the traditional downtown core while also enjoying the sculpted parks, creative storeowners and deeply invested municipal leadership.

When JoJo Dries and her husband, Paul, take their two sons downtown, they start their trip at Rochester’s duck pond and dinosaur-themed play areas. Walking into the downtown, the couple peeks into the windows of the Home Bakery to see what new creations are on display, shop for unique treasures at the Home Furniture Store or eat a bite at Kabin Kruser, where they enjoy Happy Hour and the upbeat yet warm atmosphere. And no trip could end without a stop into Sweet Island Yogurt for a treat.

“There are so many fun little surprises for adults and kids alike as you are walking,” Dries said. “It is easy to get to any restaurant, children’s toy store, unique boutiques and places like Chasing Butterflies.”

Paul & JoJo Dries and family. Photo by Nina Ignaczak.

So what makes Rochester so walkable? It all comes down to long-term planning, great sidewalks and a well-designed trail system, said Deputy City Manager Nik Banda. For example, Rochester is blessed with both the Clinton River and Paint Creek trails, which connects multiple cities and residents so they can leave their cars in the garage and use their feet or bicycles instead.

“When you can use a trail or sidewalk instead of using a car to bring people to the downtown core, that’s how you know you’ve made your community walkable,” said Banda, who has a long career in city management and planning. “That’s why my wife wanted to live in Rochester – we’re four blocks from the downtown, and it’s all connected by sidewalks.”

Rochester indeed scores high on walkability from trusted websites such as Walk Score, which helps municipalities evaluate, promote and develop walkable neighborhoods. Walk Score gave Rochester a 77 out of 100, indicating it is “very walkable so most errands can be accomplished on foot.”

The challenge, Banda notes, is that Rochester is more than 200 years old. As such, it is difficult to widen sidewalks, particularly in the downtown where traffic flow has to come before grand walkways. But the city requires any new developments install sidewalks (nice, wide ones where bikes and walkers can share the space when possible) and trails, ensuring these all-important connectors continue to grow as the city does, Banda said.

“We’ve never gotten pushback from a developer when it comes to adding sidewalks and other walkable attributes to a project,” Banda said. “People want to live where they can walk to the things they love rather than jump in their car, worry about parking or add pollution to the environment.”

The city of Rochester, settled in 1817, sits quietly on the western side of busy Oakland County. As the first settlement in Oakland County, Rochester arose out of a log cabin build near Main and Second Streets. They came in part for the nearby waterways, such as the Paint Creek River, which runs through the city. Those early residents picked the name “Rochester” as they recalled their earlier homes in the New York city of the same name.

The community has about 13,000 residents over four square miles. There is a mix of single-family houses and multi-family units, built to house the growing population of the village turned city. Rochester’s homes feature wide porches, period details and other historical attributes that make the downtown and nearby neighborhoods a mix of Victorian and traditional styles.

The downtown is a diverse collection of stores, restaurants and service businesses. The city also has a variety of parks, trails, and waterways, putting nature within reach of every visitor or resident. Let’s just say there’s ample reason CNN/Money Magazine highlighted Rochester's quality of life in 2009 by naming it as one of the Top 100 Best Places to Live.

The Main Street is one of the most diverse in Oakland County, featuring new and longtime staples. For example, the Plain & Fancy Gift Shop, owned by local favorite Valerie Keuter since 1985, carries an upscale mix of jewelry, home décor, gift items and family goods. Her venerable shop is down the street from newcomer Bright Loritos, a kid-friendly shop that offers foreign-language learning classes in everything from French to Arabic to Mandarin.

Rochester’s small-town feeling with large city appeal is part of what makes working and living there, said Amy Fonville, owner of Talulah Belle, a lifestyle boutique that is known for its one-of-a-kind artist offerings, gift wrapping and stylish look.

“It’s definitely a destination with lots of new reasons to bring people in, yet it maintains and takes pride in its history,” Fonville said.

Amy Fonville. Photo by Nick Hagen.

What makes Rochester so walkable and appealing is how connected the business owners are to the city, its residents and its visitors, Fonville said. There’s a sense of collaboration and a desire to see everyone success that is found throughout Rochester.

“We have each other’s back,” Fonville said. “Just recently, I met with a couple of other merchants to come up with a girl’s night out event during the summer. We all have something different to offer, so it’s not competitive. It’s more like we’re working together to make Rochester something special.”

What also makes Rochester a must for Dries and other downtown regulars is a long list of events that appeal to all ages and backgrounds. There’s the beloved Fire and Ice Festival as well as new events such as Caroling in the City with its Ugly Sweater Contest and the Winter Farmers’ Market. There are summer events as well, including the popular Sidewalk Sales, Movies in the Moonlight and Rochester Posed.

The dazzling Big, Bright Light Show tends to receive the most attention. The huge holiday-light display has more than 1.5 million lights stretching out across nearly every downtown Rochester storefront. It is eye-catching to drive past, but you truly have to eat out of your vehicle, on your feet and out in front of these red, green, blue and gold light-filled storefronts to get the full effect.

“It’s really the showstopper of them all,” said Nicole Schulte-Franey, owner of Holy Cannoli’s bakery on Main Street. “For years, main streets were struggling because of malls. Then came the Internet. So having a downtown that creates these events and draws people in is important. The Big, Bright Light Show is Christmas to us.”

The connections between store owners, the city’s active Downtown Development Authority as well as its resident volunteers allow Rochester to fill its sidewalks lining Main Street and beyond no matter what the season, said Kristi Trevarrow, executive director of the Rochester DDA. Altogether, the Rochester DDA and its Principal Shopping District invest more than $600,000 annually to promote and market the city through special promotions and more than 100 event days throughout the year.

Holy Cannoli. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“No matter where you’re from, downtown Rochester feels like home,” Trevarrow said. “From the independent businesses to the special events and festivals throughout the year, there is just something special about downtown.”

Trevarrow’s said her favorite walkable event is the Farmers’ Market, which runs throughout most of the year.

“The Downtown Rochester Farmers’ Market is a community favorite. It’s more than just a place to buy your fruits and vegetables. It is a place to see your friends and neighbors, to enjoy local entertainment and to interact with the farmers as you stock up on the freshest produce around,” Trevarrow said.

Schulte-Franey said she started as a pop-up shop in Rochester to see if she could make her cannoli business a go. She found a shared space, set up a table and started sending people downtown wearing angel wings, carrying samples and coupons for her shop. It was a hit from the start, and Schulte-Franey says she is happy to be part of Rochester’s walkable appeal.

“It’s a place that’s just a lot of fun,” Schulte-Franey said.

That feeling is why Dries always comes back to Rochester when she and her family want to get out, see friendly faces and experience an “it” place to be.

“We love Penny Black, especially in the Summer when you run into so many familiar faces at the outdoor bar and the outdoor dining area,” said Dries, adding that Main Street Billiards also has enjoyed a revival with friends and family. “There are so many wonderful places to hang out.”
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