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Reimagining McNichols: The multi-pronged effort to bring back a struggling commercial corridor

Corey Williams inside his company's 8,000 square-foot mixed-use development

Caitlin Murphy

Commercial property on McNichols

Vernor's mural on the side of a building on McNichols

Corey Williams

For the past few years, Corey Williams has been pouring time, sweat, and money into an area of northwest Detroit that's starting to see some major investment: the McNichols corridor. 

Along with his partners, Tony and Lolita Williams, the Detroit-born developer purchased an 8,000 square-foot mixed-use building at Wildemere Street and McNichols (also known as Six Mile) back in 2016. After some renovation, the two-story brown-brick structure, which dates back to the early 20th century, is now being rented out to tenants. And Williams' company, Strategic Business Development, LLC, is in the process of transforming the main floor into a hall for community meetings and social gatherings.

Although the stretch of Detroit where the building is located has certainly grappled with its share of blight and capital flight in recent decades, the area does have a lot going for it; it's socioeconomically diverse, has a distinctive mix of appealing homes, and is located in close proximity to Marygrove College and the University of Detroit Mercy. 

"When I was just a young developer, I always dreamed of developing real estate in that area," Williams says. "I'm optimistic. I just think that's a big prime area outside of downtown and Midtown waiting to be developed.

Corey Williams outside his company's 8,000 square-foot mixed-use development

When Williams's company first scooped up the Wildemere building two years ago, it was abandoned and derelict after having lived out previous incarnations as as a beauty salon, after-hours liquor joint, and storage space for kids bounce houses. Now its rooms are being rented out as luxury apartments and hobby spaces, and renovation work on the events space is about 90 percent complete.  

So far, Williams and his partners have invested about $340,000—all self-financed—to purchase and fix up the building. Thankfully for them, it's been pretty easy finding tenants.

Signs of change

Despite wide investor interest and Williams's enthusiasm, it's evident the neighborhood has seen better days.

Stephanie Harbin, a longtime resident and president of the San Juan Block Club, has lived on San Juan Street since 1969. The retired GM worker says when her family first moved there it was a "vibrant and thriving community" with a healthy selection of grocery stores and places to shop, a roller rink, and a junior high that offered local youth opportunities to participate in sports and other after-school activities. Unfortunately, in the intervening years, blight has crept in and a good deal of the former retail options—and many of the homes—have disappeared.

"Presently on my street about 30-plus lots are vacant now, because of homes that have been torn down," Habin says.

"The deterioration probably started in the mid-'80s when we started having, unfortunately, increased crime and increased drugs traded in the community, which caused people to move out from their homes," she continues. "And once they became abandoned then the scrappers came in which led to burnouts and homes being torn down."

Lately, however, there are indications that things may be turning around, as new investment, public and private, finds a foothold in the area. This past November, a new cafe called Detroit Sip opened its door on McNichols near Livernois and Simply Breakfast, a restaurant specializing in made-from-scratch breakfast meals, will set up shop nearby this spring.

Detroit Sip

What's more, a portion of the corridor is in the midst a rather unique redevelopment effort called the Fitzgerald Revitalization Project. The public-private collaboration is a partnership between the city of Detroit, Reimagining the Civic Commons (RCC) initiative, the Live6 Alliance, the FitzForward development team, and others to reimagine and transform a quarter mile of Detroit's Fitzgerald neighborhood covering an area between McNichols to the north, Livernois Avenue to the east, Puritan Street to the south, and Greenlawn Avenue to the west. The undertaking is being funded by a $4 million RCC grant, city of Detroit matching funds, and a $20 million pledge from the Kresge Foundation.

One of the splashier elements of the two-year project will be the creation of the new 2.5-acre Ella Fitzgerald Park, which will feature a multipurpose sports field and basketball court, playground equipment, green space, murals, and a greenway connecting Marygrove College and U-D Mercy. 

Not far away from the park, residents will also be able to visit HomeBase, a new community center that will serve as headquarters for the Live6 Alliance and the Detroit Collaborative Design Center, office space for city employees, and a meeting spot for local organizations. Beyond these two high-profile additions, the revitalization effort will also encompass the rehabbing of 115 vacant home and landscaping 192 vacant lots into green infrastructure like gardens, orchards or meadows.

The city of Detroit is also planning to do streetscaping along McNichols, drawing from $125 million in city-wide road bond funding that became available last year. Improvements could include traffic calming measures as well as street trees, lighting, benches, and sidewalk repairs. 

Visions of transformation

The attention the Fitzgerald neighborhood is getting right now is no accident. In 2015 the Duggan administration started thinking seriously about taking steps to revitalize city neighborhoods. After looking at around a dozen potential areas, Detroit's Planning and Development Department zeroed in on Fitzgerald as a pilot neighborhood for that effort. They were enticed by both the high concentration of publicly owned lots and homes, as well as the presence of strong anchor institutions like Marygrove and U-D Mercy. 

In conjunction with the Live6 Alliance, which had recently sprang into being, Maurice Cox, Detroit's Planning and Development Director applied for and received a Reimagining the Civic Commons grant for the neighborhood, allowing Detroit to become one of four U.S. cities enrolled in the program which encourage community life through investment in public gathering spaces.

Commercial property on McNichols

Alexa Bush, a landscape architect and city planner involved with the Fitzgerald effort says the city wants to turn the project zone's vacant lots and empty houses "from liabilities to assets" in a way that takes the entire neighborhood into consideration. But while a new park, community center, and urban gardens may be important parts of their strategy, preserving the character of the neighborhood is equally important.

"In the past, if you think back to the approach during the times of urban renewal, there was sort of a discounting of what was there and a desire to wipe down the slate and start clean," says Bush. "That's the antithesis of what we're trying to do. We're working with the fabric of what's there and trying to encourage everyone that's here to stay." 

In practice, that's meant getting residents and other local stakeholders involved. Live6 has played a big role in that by sponsoring a series of community speakeasy meetings as well as a farmers market. And the project's framework plan has been shaped by feedback from residents about neighborhood issues and amenities they'd like to see. 

In addition to the Fitzgerald Revitalization effort, the Reimagining the Civic Commons program and Live6 are also working to stimulate business along McNichols. They've offered advisory support to Simply Breakfast in setting up its new storefront and hope to help vendors from the farmers market set up their own shops on Six Mile.

"What we hope for is for McNichols to become a thriving commercial corridor anchored by black-owned businesses, businesses started up by people from the neighborhood or who have some ties to the neighborhood," says RCC project coordinator Caitlin Murphy.

Caitlin Murphy

The longtime resident Stephanie Harbin has attended several of Live6's speakeasies. While she says there is a small but vocal minority who are worried these new developments will push current residents out of the neighborhood, she believes the changes taking place will benefit the community overall. 

That said, she does wish organizers would have more of a focus on increasing residency in the neighborhood.

"I would like to see more neighbors," she says. "People. Not so much orchards, meadows, groves, things like that. You need people in the community to actually cause revenue to increase."

Corey Williams, on the other hand is certain that the future of the corridor depends on bringing new development to the area. And he's confident he's doing his part to make that happen.

"I believe that there's people with disposable income in the area who don't have good food options and good places to hang out," he says. "And I think it's one of those things where if you build it they will come."

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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