Back in the 1950's and '60s, Mack Avenue on Detroit's east side was a bustling commercial corridor with plenty of shops and services available to the folks who lived and visited there. In the intervening years, however, the offerings along the thoroughfare dwindled drastically, with vacant lots and empty storefronts now defining the landscape as much as the remaining businesses.
But a faith-based nonprofit community development corporation is looking to change that by working with local residents, businesses, and community groups. MACC Development, which is linked to the Mack Avenue Community Church, is the process of transforming the lobby of a former furniture warehouse into a community space called The Commons that will house a combination laundromat and coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi.
Its work with the building is part of a larger development plan for the Mack Avenue corridor oriented towards creating a neighborhood center, embracing placemaking and alternative land use like urban gardens, and making the area more friendly for bicyclists, pedestrians, and other users of non-motorized transportation.
Stretch of Mack Avenue near The Commons
Exterior of The Commons
DeAirah Mast, a social worker, lives with her husband and their two children in Detroit's Pingree Park neighborhood, which lies along the corridor in Detroit's 48214 zip code. She's less than thrilled with the current state of retail options in the area.
"This side of Mack has been impoverished for quite some time," Mast says. "Coming from Grosse Pointe, it's scenic. A lot of businesses are thriving. And then as soon as you cross Alter, definitely going across Conner, you see a lot of abandoned buildings, buildings where there were once thriving shops."
Her tone changes dramatically, however, when she starts talking about The Commons and the larger effort to revitalize the neighborhood. The closest laundromat to her is in the city's West Village neighborhood, and she likes the idea of turning empty lots into urban gardens and making the area friendlier for bicyclists.
"I'm excited for it!" says Mast. "It's good to see The Commons actually being built. Hopefully it will be groundbreaking for other future development along Mack."
Rebuilding the corridor
MACC Development's executive director Ezekiel Harris says his group has developed a vision for the corridor covers a thirteen-block span of Mack between East Grand Boulevard and Fischer Street. It caters towards servicing residents from a diverse range of backgrounds and income brackets in the east side neighborhoods of Pingree Park, Islandview, Indian Village, and West Village.
"The strategy behind this corridor plan," says Harris, "was to bring the different churches and organizations and business leaders in our common area together to dream a little bit about what could this corridor look like, recognizing that we weren't going to necessarily get back to having businesses on every lot, but there was something more that could be done."
Harris in the The Commons, which is being redeveloped into a laundromat and coffee shop
The plan takes a bold, open-sourced approach, asking others to join them in imagining and implementing improvements like better pedestrian crossings and buffered bike lanes that plug into the city's non-motorized master plan; placemaking elements like public art, outdoor marketplaces, games, pop-up food courts, shaded seating, and community events; and vacant land being converted into rain gardens, pocket parks, orchards, and community gardens that would help mitigate stormwater runoff.
The last aspect of the plan involves bridging, according to Harris, "existing assets and emerging opportunities" to establish a neighborhood center and secondary neighborhood areas where the community could meet their commercial and recreational needs.
The MACC Building at 7900 Mack Ave., slated to open in late summer or early fall of this year, is the group's first step towards realizing their neighborhood center goal. The 12,000-square foot former warehouse will house MACC church, The Commons, and rentable meeting spaces, as well as office space for the ministry's various nonprofits (which include development, tutoring, sports, legal assistance, and home rehab programs).
The faith-based CDC is also working with their neighbor the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church to create a community park on a nearby vacant lot which will feature a performance space, seating, and a playground for children. These two projects will be keeping MACC development very busy for the near future.
"We're trying to finish and implement our part of it, so then we can build more credibility for our area," says Harris. "Let's finish this building, let's do this lot and then let's help others be part of that vision."
Helping hands and community resources
MACC Development's endeavor to help reinvent and reinvigorate Mack Avenue is certainly ambitious, but thankfully the CDC is getting help from many different quarters.
While the price tag of renovating the MACC Building, purchased at a Wayne County tax auction, is estimated at a hefty $1.5 million, the nonprofit has received sizable grants from organizations like The Lloyd and Mabel Johnson Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Motor City Match, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the City Light Charitable group, and the Lower Eastside Action Plan Project Fund. It's also enjoyed a significant boost from the crowd-funding site Patronicity. Harris breaks down the funding for the project at about 60 percent from grants, between 10 and 20 percent from neighbors and individual donors, and the rest from financing from IFF, a community development financial institution.
As for the broader corridor plan, it's been shaped by input of local stakeholders through a combination of community meetings and outreach to local residents and business owners.
"MACC Development is not a new name in the community. It's pretty much a household name," says Mast, who attended several planning meetings and has noted the CDC's efforts to involve local block clubs in their work. "I feel they've been proactive in their efforts to be as engaging as possible. And they've gotten a lot from the community."
She sees The Commons incorporation of a coffee shop and laundromat into their new building as responding to real community needs, and applauds them for creating a place where local residents can meet.
Nathanael Egger, a neighborhood resident and local business owner, is also fired up about the project. A church elder and former MACC Development board member, he's the founder of Taproot Investments which owns the D&D Storage company and several vacant lots around Mack. Through his business, he's facilitated meetings and registration efforts for the CDC and helped to accommodate its moving activities. He's also interested in turning the lower level of D&D Storage into a commercial space for three or more small businesses.
Egger inside his shop, D&D Storage
In his appraisal, the density of residential housing along Mack and presence of strong neighborhood groups are great opportunities for entrepreneurs interested in selling products and services in Detroit.
"As a Christian, I'm excited to see God's love transform hurting neighborhoods spiritually and physically," says Egger. "There's a tremendous opportunity to see economic justice through building and growing businesses in a neighborhood like ours and along a stretch of Mack that has been intentionally ignored by those outside the city and even the big developers downtown."
Taproot isn't the only investor thinking along these lines. Harris says a number of local business owners and developers have been visiting the area, and one has even expressed interest in setting up a green infrastructure project. While, right now, MACC Development is focused on making The Commons a reality and creating an outdoor meeting space, it's clear that the CDC hopes their efforts will ultimately encourage others to take a leap faith and invest in the area. Beyond that, Harris would love the project to one day inspire others outside the corridor.
"I hope that in five years people talk about Mack Avenue as a model for what other communities can do around Detroit and around other urban centers across the United States," he says. "Because all of these vacancies and dilapidated buildings, we're not the only ones facing these issues."
This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.
The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.
All photos by Nick Hagen.