From the Archives: Boulevard of dreams

This article was originally published on May 15, 2007.

For 17 years, Naomi Shin has watched cars and trucks zip past her Livernois Avenue storefront at Cobo Cleaners. So many vehicles file through the area, in fact, that the Michigan Department of Transportation and the city of Detroit are undertaking a sizable effort to ease congestion along the commercial strip, and local residents and businesses could benefit as a result.

The city is in the process of wrapping up the $1.5-million first phase of a three-phase road improvement project to transform Livernois into a scenic boulevard. Medians have been built along a two-mile portion of the thoroughfare that starts just south of McNichols and stretches nearly to Eight Mile. The concrete has cured and installers have been planting grass this spring.

Every 24 hours, about 32,000 vehicles pass through the strip. That's great if you're a business owner and count on the traffic for customers. But the heavy volume has brought headaches in the form of repeated crashes. From 1995 to 2005, that two-mile span of Livernois saw 1,863 vehicle crashes, including three fatal smashups, according to City of Detroit data.

Cutting the number of pileups is also a strategy to address the city’s insurance rate dilemma. Detroit ranks among the most expensive municipalities in the nation for vehicle insurance. The rate of crashes contributes to the exorbitant costs resident car owners shoulder. The boulevard project is aimed at reducing that burden.

“Studies have shown that this type of treatment has greatly reduced crashes of all kinds,” says traffic engineer Sunny Jacobs, who has overseen the project for the city of Detroit. He says studies show the installation of medians has led up to a 40 percent drop in traffic mishaps.

Safer streets, better business

The Livernois overhaul is partly a pilot in what could be further expansion of the boulevard concept into other sections of the city, Jacobs says. 

By installing 24-foot medians, the city has reduced Livernois from nine lanes to two lanes plus one for parking, both northbound and southbound. 

“People will see more business. People are driving slower," Jacob says. "They can focus their attention on the businesses as they are driving by and are more likely to stop. That will increase business volume.” 

The boulevards also make crossing the street safer, turning Livernois into a more walkable street. A pedestrian-friendly area is good for business and could entice more residents to venture into the shopping district, historically known as the Avenue of Fashion. 

Should it now be known as the Boulevard of Fashion? Well, that depends, because Livernois’ reputation has taken a hit or two over the last few decades.

As manager of Cobo Cleaners, a fixture in the area, Shin has watched patiently as the commercial strip has bustled, struggled and been revived again. Shin has been able to hang around, despite the valleys, because her business does good work, and is in a prime location. Her stretch of Livernois, between McNichols and Eight Mile roads, is supported by the University District and Palmer Woods, two of the most solid neighborhoods the city has to offer.

Diversity is a plus 

The street’s heyday waned in the 1970s, and attempts to keep the area solvent have met with mixed results ever since. It's still stronger than most, given the fact that it backs up to a neighborhood with homes in the $200,000-and-up range.

A diverse mix of businesses line Livernois on either side, including clothing establishments, professional offices, and electronics stores. It is also home to churches, grocery stores, and restaurants like Gregg’s Pizza, Boston Market, and Louisiana Creole Gumbo. Popular spots like Crossroads Lounge, one of the city’s few smoke-free clubs and Baker's Keyboard Lounge, established in 1934, sit a stone’s throw away from new developments in Pembroke Plaza and other recently planted strip malls.

“[The boulevard] is a good idea, and hopefully it will be good for business,” says Shin. “I hope more development comes as a result."

She says drivers have to get used to the new Livernois. From her storefront window, Shin has watched collisions and near collisions as frustrated drivers attempt U-turns in the newly installed medians.

Phase two will extend the boulevard south to Davison, and the final stage of the project will see the installation of medians extended to Grand River. The next two phases are expected to cost about $1.2 million each.

“This is a new way to look at economic development,” Jacobs says. Other cities, he notes, have undertaken similar efforts with positive results.
This story is a part of "10 Years of Change," a year-long series celebrating Model D's decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.
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