How one block can change a neighborhood: the case of Agnes Street and West Village

In so many ways, Kirsten Ussery can't believe where Detroit is today. Five years ago, Ussery, who is vegan, would have to go to Chicago to get a decent vegan meal. Now, Detroit is appearing on lists of the top vegan-friendly cities in America

Ussery, as co-owner of Detroit Vegan Soul, has played a major role in that change. The restaurant, which she opened with her business and life partner Erika Boyd, has brought attention to both veganism, as well as the neighborhood where her business opened: the West Village.

"People would often ask us, 'Why open there? Why not Midtown where there's more traffic?'" Ussery says. "We're a destination kind of business. People seek out what we're offering. … What we wanted to do was bring people to the neighborhood."

Erika Boyd and Kirsten Ussery in the pre-renovated Detroit Vegan Soul, which opened in 2013

That's exactly what Detroit Vegan Soul did when they opened on Agnes Street in 2013, a time when doing so outside the greater downtown area was much less common. And thanks to that decision, West Village has changed, too. 

"It's amazing to see what's taking place now, when all of those years ago, we just had a vision," Ussery says. 

The development of Agnes Street is perhaps the most salient example of how a commercial strip—in this case, a single block—can impact a neighborhood. Two buildings were renovated to accommodate four businesses. Since, the neighborhood has been on an upward economic trajectory that doesn't seem close to slowing down. 

A neighborhood destination

There wasn't any commercial activity on Agnes Street, and little elsewhere in the West Village, in 2011 when Brian Hurttienne became the first executive director of the Villages CDC, the community development group that encompasses West Village and five other neighborhoods. The beloved Harlequin Cafe had just closed, and the Villages CDC thought it was time to take action. 

"My main directive was economic development," says Hurttienne, who has since started his own architecture firm, Christian Hurttienne Architects. 

West Village certainly had assets: great building stock, a location next to the stable and historic Indian Village neighborhood, and an active CDC (of which Ussery was a board member). 

It was a placemaking initiative, the Tashmoo Biergarten, that first catalyzed development interest in the neighborhood. The weekly outdoor bar popup was "wildly successful" in its first year, according to Hurttienne, pulling in about $10,000 every Sunday. 

Brian Hurttienne - photo by Marvin Shaouni

That encouraged the Villages CDC to target the block of Agnes Street between Van Dyke and Parker streets for commercial redevelopment. They first got a $75,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation to activate retail spaces. The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation then helped with facade work and technical assistance. Hatch Detroit contributed $150,000 for new windows, light fixtures, bike racks, and signage. 

Finally they got the owners of the Parkstone Apartments and West Village Manor, the two mixed-use buildings on Agnes, to buy in to the redevelopment plan. The Parkstone in particular put a lot of money into renovating its interior to accommodate a new business. 

The Villages CDC also pursued streetscape improvements and commissioned the artist Ouizi to paint a mural on the building across the street. 

In addition to Detroit Vegan Soul, the restaurant Craft Work and coffee shop Red Hook opened in 2014. (The only business no longer open is Tarot and Tea, but has since been replaced by the fitness center Live Cycle Delight). 

These efforts to promote entrepreneurship resulted in a major increase in the profile of the West Village that's been sustained to this day. "I don't think it's the only thing responsible [for the neighborhood's growth], but it's certainly the biggest," Hurttienne says. "It signified walkability and everything else you'd want in an urban neighborhood."

Ussery says that because it was a destination, and not just locals patronizing, interest grew rapidly in the neighborhood. "All the traffic it generated, and with people driving or walking around while waiting for a seat, they'd see how pleasant a neighborhood it is," Ussery says. "There'd always been a great community here, and now you're also within walking distance to a bar, a cool vegan restaurant with tasty, healthy food, a coffee shop, and all the other businesses that followed. It just became a destination."

Homes in the West Village - photo by Marvin Shaouni

Since those initial four businesses, many more have opened in the neighborhood, including Sister Pie, Detroit Body Garage, Brix Wine Bar, and others. Several are winners of the Hatch Detroit $50,000 Challenge and alums. 

A few businesses, like Paramita Sound and Parker Street Market, have either closed or relocated. And there's also Heavy Weight Cuts, a barbershop on Kercheval Street that's been in business since 2001.

While it wasn't necessarily an intentional effort on the part of planners, minorities, women, and members of the LGBT community are all well represented in the business community. "This is the single most diverse collection of small business owners anywhere in city," says Mac Farr, current Villages CDC executive director.

Other multi-unit apartment buildings have been announced or are under construction, including the 12-unit Coe and 76-unit Van Dyke @ Kercheval, which will also include 15 units of affordable housing. 

All this development has significantly raised neighborhood property values. According to Zillow, the average home sale in the West Village in 2015 was $79,433. It has climbed to $291,000 so far in 2018. 

Agnes was the template
Mac Farr
Farr believes that the success of Agnes was built on simple factors that can be replicated throughout the rest of The Villages: community input and an emphasis on infrastructure. 

"Agnes has functional sidewalks and bike racks. Hatch paid for the lighting. DTE cut tree branches," he says. "The whole package was based on infrastructure being present and functional, and then the real estate took care of itself."

To that end, Farr is trying to capitalize on the West Village's moment to stabilize and rebuild the rest of the Villages. He's put together a strategic framework for the area that addresses quality of life issues, such as storm drain clearing, fire hydrant repairs, pothole filling, alley clearing, and illegal dumping prevention.

There are also a number of properties that aren't up to code, either with the local historic district or the city. Farr says they'll start with the most egregious cases of code violations, such as houses with holes in the roof, detached porches, and collapsed garages. Hopefully, once people appreciate the city's responsiveness, and abandoned houses are boarded up and vacant lots are mowed, residents will take it upon themselves to maintain their property. 

Other issues remain across the Villages, including important questions around displacement caused by higher property values and rental rates. Everyone would like to see a greater mix of retail, like hardware and grocery stores, that caters to locals. A good example is The Commons, a combined coffee shop, laundromat, and community space that just opened on Mack Avenue near Van Dyke. 

But given all that's happened in such a short amount of time, and with all the viable commercial property on Jefferson, Kercheval, and Mack avenues, the future looks bright for West Village. "Agnes was the template," says Farr. "But there's much bigger trends at play here that will ultimately allow us to finish the work that Agnes began."

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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