Business leaders on Avenue of Fashion explore new era for the historic corridor

In its heyday, Livernois' Avenue of Fashion was a shopping destination for all variety of expensive clothes and accessories. 

"It became big in the '50s and early '60s," says Michael Dolphin, director of the Avenue of Fashion Business Association (AFBA). "We had B. Siegel's department store, big name retail stores. You could buy anything: furs, jewelry, high-end men's and women's clothes. It was real popular."

The avenue's fortunes begin to wane, however, in the late 1960's as people started to relocate to the suburbs in large numbers. The decline was never as severe as other parts of the city, according to Dolphin, thanks to strong surrounding neighborhoods like Green Acres and the University District. But over time, many of the original clothing shops closed down.

"A lot of beauty shops came and took the place of the clothing shops for a number of years," says Dolphin. "We had some vacancies, and the quality of the shops wasn't the same." 

Nowadays, however, business on Livernois is really starting to hum, particularly along the four-block strip of the Avenue of Fashion. And because of this renewed interest, local business leaders are thinking about ways to harness that energy and expand development further along Livernois. 

Entering a new era

Thankfully, though, with a bunch of new development and a resurgence of black-owned businesses in the area, things are looking better than ever right now for both the avenue and the wider Livernois corridor.

One of the biggest things hitting the avenue right now is developer Matt Hessler's planned redevelopment of the former B. Siegel Co. department store into a $8.3 million mixed use building. Called 7.Liv, the development will feature retail spots, restaurants, about a dozen residential units, and underground parking.

Kuzzo's Chicken and Waffles, a Bucharest Grill, and the Narrow Way Cafe have also opened on the strip in recent years and more businesses are on the way. Foot traffic is picking up too.

Narrow Way coffee shop

"We have a lot of restaurants coming. We have clothing stores coming. So it's where I want it," says Dolphin. "It's coming back."

While he credits the 1917 American Bistro, a Cajun-themed restaurant which recently closed its doors, with kicking off the recent boom, organizations like his have also played an important role in bringing the area back to life. For over 30 years the AFBA has been dedicated to keeping the Avenue of Fashion clean and safe, and promoting it through marketing and events like the annual Jazz on the Ave celebration. Dolphin says operations started out small for them, but local opposition to a new traffic island median helped bring merchants together. Now the organization is in contact with every single business on the strip at least once a month.

And the AFBA hasn't been alone in its work to revitalize the area.

Rufus Bartell owns Simply Casual, a boutique clothing shop that's been a mainstay on the strip for many years. He's also president of the Independent Business Association, a group that takes a corridor-wide approach to Livernois and is focused on encouraging revitalization along the three mile stretch from 8 Mile Road to the Lodge.

Bartell moved his store from 7 Mile to Livernois on the Avenue of Fashion in 2004 and immediately started thinking about how to turn the corridor around. 

"I was already a resident and wanted to be involved with the redevelopment of that corridor," he says. "It was my goal to see past where it was to where it was going."

Rufus Bartell

Simply Casual

Together with some other business owners, he took the semi-revolutionary step of removing the protective metal bars from the windows of Simply Casual and another seven or eight shops along Livernois. They then set out to alter the visual presentation of local stores and began to recruit new businesses to the area. More than a decade later, Bartell is pleased with where things are heading. 

"Now the avenue is starting to grow, attracting more dollars and more concepts," he says. "We want this wide variety of emphasis on the avenue from nightlife to restaurants. You could get a great massage if you wanted to. 

"The goal is not just bringing back the heyday," he adds. "It's to go past the heyday."

Along the strip

Things have also been picking up lately south of 7 Mile near Livernois and McNichols. There's a new coffee shop called Detroit Sip right down the street from the intersection along with a new community space that will headquarter the Live6 Alliance nonprofit. An eatery called Simply Breakfast, public park named after Ella Fitzgerald and some new streetscaping are also on their way for the neighborhood.

[Read Model D's article about efforts to revive the McNichols commercial corridor]

Cheryl Anderson Small is president of the Livernois/University Merchants Association, whose boundaries stretch along Livernois from Puritan to McNichols and on McNichols from Hamilton to Wyoming. Established in 1984, her organization works to encourage community-minded, eco-friendly development. She's definitely noticed an uptick of interest around the Livernois corridor and is quick to credit Maurice Cox of the city's urban planning department for helping develop things in a way that's mindful of community input.

"The locals and indeed folks beyond the community boundaries are coming [to shop]," she says. "And there's interest that includes development opportunities, leasing, and property sales."

The Avenue of Fashion

Interior of C. Grantston Bullard

Lolita Haley is a local realtor and director of the University Commons community development organization, which also covers the Livernois and McNichols Corridors, and has focused on things like promotion, community engagement, and helping get lights and facade improvements. She concurs with Small that things are improving, and attributes that to investors thirsting for solid neighborhoods outside of downtown and Midtown. 

"If you can't afford to go downtown, you're going to go where they're voting a lot and the property value is high and inventory is down," says Haley. "If a house comes on the market here, my phone rings."

With McNichols right along the University District, Haley also thinks it's a sure thing that development there will eventually link up with what's happening near 7 Mile. And with that in mind, she's nothing but upbeat about the future of business in the area.

"I bought my building from a furrier, so I've been here long enough to see a furrier come back," she says. "I've been here since B. Siegel left and now I see Matt Hassler, a friend of ours, has invested money to do some development down on 7 Mile. 

"If I was going to invest, I'd invest in the area."

This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our Live6 On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the area. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

All photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.
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