Thirteen years ago, the strip of Willis Street just west of Cass Avenue in Detroit was nearly vacant. Not much retail, dining or bar business went on in the area at all, and the businesses that were there went largely unnoticed by those who traveled nearby Woodward or Warren avenues.
The few establishments were primarily solo destinations. People drove up, went to one place and went home. Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center, both nearby, seemed disconnected.
Things began to change with the opening of Avalon International Breads on Willis, and Wayne State's efforts at helping to create a community both on campus and in the nearby area. More investment followed. The fruits of those first few seeds began to multiply as a number of small businesses cropped up within the past few years, with more openings planned for this year.
This area known as Midtown — roughly between downtown and the New Center — has a growing energy and the promise of more if a planned rail project is installed along Woodward. With its independent businesses, continued investment from Wayne State and a new mind-set about walkability, rideability and marketability, the area is a unique and colorful section of Detroit. And the strip along Willis at Cass is becoming one of its most vibrant components.
"What we have now is a lot of bubbling up. It's like a brew," says Harriet Saperstein, a former city of Detroit planner and current chair of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, which works in Wayne and Oakland counties. "With lots of these bubbles, some of them are going to dissipate, but some may have more flavor and staying power."
A lot of ingredients are already in the recipe. The WSU on-campus population has more than doubled, says Nabelah Ghareeb, Wayne State's associate vice president for business and auxiliary operations, rising from about 1,300 students living in campus housing a decade ago to more than 3,000 today
Avalon was exclusively a wholesaler when it opened 13 years ago, selling its organic bread to area restaurants and markets. Co-owner Ann Perrault marvels at the difference between then and now.
"At first we weren't even going to open as a retail bakery because we just thought there wouldn't be that much business," she says. "There weren't people down here. From that to the over 500 customers a day that we currently have? That's a big, big change."
The bakery is now a popular place for meals (soups, sandwiches and breakfast food), meetings and shopping, as it's part retail bakery, part bustling coffee shop, part neighborhood nerve center.
The bakery's neighbors now include Goodwells Natural Market, with organic foods and prepared lunches; Flo's Boutique with unique fashions from local designers and European lines; the Spiral Collective, selling gifts, books and art; and the Re:view Contemporary Gallley, which features visual art, design and writing. New lofts are opening next door to Avalon in a renovated building, and Curl Up & Dye is thriving around the corner. Within a few blocks, more restaurants and retailers are open with even more planned.
It's a boon for the Wayne State and DMC crowds that work nearby and are increasingly walking to the Willis strip. Neighborhood residents also walk and ride bicycles to and from the businesses and bars. Downtown workers can make the short jaunt on their lunch hours.
For six years, Perrault says, Avalon has been trying to find a larger space to move into so the bakery can expand its wholesale business and its retail crowd. She won't disclose details of a forthcoming deal but is trying to remain within a few blocks of the current location.
The neighborhood, she says, needs more places for grocery shopping and "hanging out. … I'm hoping that we intermix some things: more artists' lofts and galleries."
The area, she says, is succeeding because of entrepreneurs. It doesn't have a big box store or very many franchised businesses. It feels more like a neighborhood that welcomes visitors.
"We just make it work, like trying to buy locally from one another," Perrault says. "We support one another. If somebody needs $5,000, we try to help them out. If somebody can't afford to get their snow plowed, we pick them up this year and maybe they can get next year."
But that cooperative spirit is interrupted by an ongoing legal tangle a block north of Avalon.
It's a snowy February afternoon, but patrons at Motor City Brewing Works are enduring it with pints at the bar — the most famous being Ghettoblaster — and fresh-made pizzas. It's not easy to find, sitting a few dozen yards back from Canfield Street, hidden by the fenced parking lot marked for the venerable Traffic Jam restaurant, across the street.
Decorated with colorful tiles, the work of local artists, and views of the brewing operation, Motor City provides a comfortable and friendly place to spend some time. Unless you're the co-owner, John Linardos, who is fighting his neighbor's attempt to cut off customers from the handful of parking spots adjacent to the pub.
"They're dragging it out for years," he says. "And it's expensive."
Linardos and the owners of the Traffic Jam & Snug restaurant have been fighting in court since 2006, but the dispute started years earlier.
In 1994, the former owners of Traffic Jam sold their interest in Motor City to Linardos, and five years later sold him the property. Because the brewery is located in the back of the parking lot owned by Traffic Jam, Linardos needed an easement from the former Traffic Jam owners for ingress and egress from Canfield to the Motor City property. The lot has two gates: one provides a straight shot from Canfield to the brewery, the other requires weaving through rows of cars parked in the rest of the lot.
Later, in 1999, Carolyn Howard and Scott Lowell bought Traffic Jam through a lease with option to purchase that included the provision to honor Linardos' easement, according to court documents.
Over the next few years, Linardos expanded but ran into financial difficulties. Finally, he sought a buyer. Linardos says he talked with Lowell, who has since bought other properties in the area. They reached no agreement and then, records show, found that the original agreement between Linardos and the previous Traffic Jam owners did not provide a "right of first refusal" that would have allowed Lowell to buy back the Motor city property.
Linardos eventually took on a partner and added the restaurant, drawing customers with art exhibitions and the notable beers.
And the friendly neighborhood got less friendly. Signs went up on the Traffic Jam-owned parking lot stating "Traffic Jam Parking Only" and "Tow-Away Zone."
Finally, the gate granting access to Motor City was chained, and guards in the parking lot prevented customers and delivery trucks from entering.
"It's the theory of Motor City that once Mr. Lowell and the Traffic Jam learned they didn't have a right of first refusal and it appeared they were not going to acquire Motor City; they would do whatever they could do to drive Motor City out of business," Linardos' attorneys wrote in court filings.
Linardos has won in Wayne County Circuit Court, where judges have ruled that Traffic Jam can't lock the gates and that the easement stands. Traffic Jam is pursuing the case at the Court of Appeals for a second time. Attorneys for Traffic Jam did not return telephone calls from Metro Times.
Howard has written to Metro Times saying that Traffic Jam is not obligated to provide free parking to patrons of other businesses. Linardos insists he's just asking for the ability for his customers to get to Motor City Brewing and to the handful of parking spaces on his property.
He has asked for a finding of contempt against Traffic Jam, says his attorney, Steve Cohen.
Avalon's Perrault and other area business owners won't comment on the dispute. Some say they patronize both establishments, seeking neighborhood peace. Whatever the outcome on Canfield, the rest of the area is moving ahead with a connected community.
"The idea is retail brings people and foot traffic and makes the place very walkable and very safe," Ghareeb says. "We're all working on the same concept of making Midtown a great place to live, learn, work and play."
Wayne State is including retail space in any new construction, Ghareeb says, on campus or in properties the institution owns in the area.
"The point is there's lots going on and there is a sense of cooperation," says Saperstein. "That's positive."Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or [email protected]