Restoring East Warren

It is nearly impossible to pick up a newspaper, turn on the local television news or even log on to the Internet without finding an update on the mortgage crisis that's gripping the nation. The crisis is hitting metro Detroit neighborhoods particularly hard. In fact, a recent CNN national ranking had three Detroit zip codes in the top 10 hardest hit areas for foreclosures.

One of those zip codes is 48224, which encompasses the far East Side neighborhoods of MorningSide and East English Village.

It's bleak news, but the statistic does not tell the whole story. Neighbors and community development groups aren't taking it sitting down.

"Although all that is happening, we can't let that scare businesses away," says Bill Swanson, director of commercial revitalization at U-SNAP-BAC, an East Side community development corporation.

U-SNAP-BAC is working with the city of Detroit's Re$tore Detroit effort to help prevent a slide in the businesses along East Warren that serve that part of town. Other organizations working on the effort include East Warren Business United (the area business association) and the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood and Commercial Revitalization (ONCR).

Re$tore Detroit — an off-shoot of the national Main Streets initiative — aims to rejuvenate once-bustling commercial districts in the city, as East Warren once was. The city of Detroit committed $2.4 million over five years and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) committed $1.8 million over three years for Re$tore Detroit. The program is designed to make the district self-funded after the initial five years of subsidy.

Five to flourish

Re$tore Detroit helps business owners spruce up existing storefronts and improve the overall look of the commercial strip. The program also works to attract new businesses, Swanson says.

The goal is to pump new life into the East Warren area, which includes neighborhoods of solid middle class streets.

"My job is to be the cheerleader. I'm not going to lie to them, but they're going to get an accurate picture of the opportunities that there are on East Warren," Swanson says.

It all starts with focusing on five areas, which include:
  • drawing needed stakeholders to the table;
  • promoting the corridor;
  • enhancing the design of the area's facades, parking and streetscapes;
  • economic development work to retain and attract businesses;
  • and keeping the area clean and safe – an important initial concern.

The group believes that a commercial district needs all five to flourish. "This is all the stuff you see in thriving districts. You can't just put a big box store on East Warren and expect it to thrive," Swanson says.

Signs of success

Planners have a tall task in front of them. The strip has a hefty collection of vacant lots and shuttered storefronts, but the partnership is seeing some early returns, by way of new businesses, cleaned up building exteriors, added greenscapes, new trash cans (that are actually being used, officials say) and much-improved streetlighting.

A handful of new businesses have opened up recently in the corridor. They include the Honey Tree Restaurant, a Da Vita Dialysis center, the In Season and Out Dance Studio, the Detroit Shrimp Eatery, and a karate studio. Even better, the businesses are occupying once-abandoned buildings.

Walk into Honey Tree at any time of day and you will see neighborhood residents enjoying breakfast, lunch or dinner. The building housing the diner had been closed after a fire over a year ago.

"So far so good," says owner Leonard Frrokaj, who decided to renovate the building and open his restaurant there.

He immigrated from Kosovo in 2001, and worked in local restaurants learning the ins and outs, finally convincing relatives back home to help him with launching the venture. He said he didn't have any reservations about opening his business in the area. In fact, he thought the area was prime for opportunity.

"The neighborhood is good and the people here are good. Things are going well," Frrokaj says.

Also on tap for East Warren:
  • Students from Lawrence Technical University and the University of Detroit Mercy, along with professionals from the community are involved in a streetscape development planning project. They recently held a design charrette. Read about it here.
  • The East Warren Fall Pumpkin Festival is scheduled for Oct. 27. The festival is a family fun day, with pumpkin painting, face painting, pie eating and storytelling, among other activities.
  • Comerica Bank will sponsor a series of seminars for businesses in 2008. The seminars will prove business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs an opportunity to make their operations successful by providing solid tax, accounting and marketing instruction.

Rodd Monts is a Detroit-based freelance writer.


U-SNAP-BAC Offices on East Warren

Hammertime Hardware

Blue Pointe Seafood and Pasta Restaurant

Honey Tree Restaurant

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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