Why Detroiters should battle construction chaos to...

Why Detroiters should battle construction chaos to spend their dollars on the Avenue of Fashion

Back in May, Carson Daly turned to the camera during a pre-Mother’s Day segment on “The Today Show” and instructed viewers to order a dessert from Good Cakes and Bakes. He name-checked their website as the hosts raved about a Lemon Velvet Cake whipped up by baker April Anderson under the watchful eye of mom Shirley Madison. In the next two weeks, word spread locally, and walk-in orders at the acclaimed Detroit bakery went up 50 percent. Then, they fell flat. 

The problem? A construction project that began tearing up Livernois Avenue that month, making traffic chaotic and parking difficult. It’s run off customers and left business owners on the Avenue of Fashion suffering from revenue losses. 

In the last six weeks, Good Cakes and Bakes’ in-store orders dropped more than a third and they’ve had to cut hours. They’re staying afloat with catering gigs, as well as online ordering through their site, Postmates and DoorDash

Other businesses aren’t faring as well. According to Crain’s Detroit Business, Narrow Way Café & Shop is considering closing for good, and the popular eatery Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles closed during the construction period to complete a kitchen renovation project. 

The city is conducting a major overhaul of the Livernois corridor, removing medians between 8 Mile and just south of 7 Mile; making it a two-lane, slower street; adding bike lanes; and widening sidewalks to allow for cafe seating. Overall, changes are designed to make the area more walkable and welcoming to shoppers and diners. The bulk of the project is slated to be completed in November, with smaller upgrades that don’t impact traffic scheduled for spring.

But the rollout has been frustrating for Good Cakes and Bakes co-owner Anderson. 

“For almost two years, we had conversations about the planning and development of it, but at no time was it ever discussed when this would take place,” she told Detour. “We didn’t know a final plan had been decided, and we found out a week before construction started.… ‘This is the final design and now let’s talk about how we’re going to save these businesses during this time’ — we never had that kind of conversation [with the city].”

The city did spring into action this month, and is launching several initiatives to drive traffic to local businesses. They’re piloting a weekend shuttle bus during Saturday’s annual Jazz on the Ave event; they’re putting up new signage on Livernois by the end of the week; and in late August they’ll host the first of five city-sponsored Livernois Soup dinners based on the Detroit Soup model, aimed at helping existing businesses rather than new projects. At each event, several will win small grants, and the hosting shop will also get a stipend. 

Good Cakes and Bakes has seen steady declines in visitors since construction began on Livernois.
Good Cakes and Bakes has seen steady declines in visitors since construction began on Livernois. Courtesy Good Cakes and Bakes.

“There’s been a lot of discussions about what to do, but sort of turning them into actions didn’t happen soon enough,” Arthur Jemison, Detroit’s chief of services and infrastructure, told Detour. “We’re doing that now, and we’re moving as quick as we can to get those things done.”

Jemison recently hosted a community meeting with business owners, and the city appointed an employee to walk the district daily, keeping owners informed about construction after they complained about lack of communication.

Before the city started addressing the problem, a nearby resident came up with her own plan after seeing empty shops and eateries on Livernois. University District Community Association board member Jessica Bondalapati, who runs a small business consultancy, got her colleagues’ sign-off to see how they could pitch in. 

She and several shop owners, including Anderson, came up with the idea of a regular, lower-effort event that would encourage people to come spend their money locally — and this Friday marks the inaugural “First Friday” and “Cash Mob” event on Livernois. Businesses will stay open through the evening and offer special deals and contests, including buy-one, get-one cupcakes at the bakery.

“There really has been a disconnect between the residents and the commercial district for regular, day-to-day shopping,” Bondalapati said. She credits that separation to some Detroiters being less inclined to walk or bike.

She hopes First Fridays will eventually make the Avenue of Fashion a citywide destination — and that holding the events during the construction period will not only help businesses, but create walking habits for neighbors.

Rendering of planned streetscape on Livernois Avenue in Detroit, after construction to improve walkability is completed.
Rendering of the planned streetscape on Livernois Avenue. Courtesy City of Detroit.

“We wanted to put the ownership on the residents to say, ‘Hey, if you want to have these businesses to stick around, you better go out and support them with their cash,” Bondalapati added.  

Jemison echoed that sentiment.

“We need people to embrace this commercial district.… We’ve got to support these businesses every day that we can during this timeframe.”

Bondalapati does her grocery shopping at Mike’s Market, grabs a bite at Noni’s Sherwood Grille and often stops for coffee at Narrow Way or Biggby. Anderson shouts out the apparel at Three Thirteen and Simply Casual. There are galleries like Detroit Fiber Works, and jazz institution Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. There’s a whole host of service providers, from salons to a dermatologist and shoe repair shop. 

The historic district is home to a huge concentration of independent, black-owned businesses, Anderson pointed out, and they rely on the bustling summer and Christmas seasons to survive slower months. 

“The way this construction is going, it’s causing black-owned businesses to have to shut down,” she worried. “Once this all done, once this is all beautiful and walkable and family-friendly, what kind of businesses are going to be over here still? It’s not going to have this unique culture that it has right now.

“I know the benefit of the changes coming over here — it’s just like, are we gonna still be here when it happens?”

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl