Businesses put best face forward with help of local façade improvement programs

While it's shallow and rude to judge a person by his or her appearance, what about judging a community by the attractiveness of its buildings? A building's visual order can have an inordinate impact on a community, which is why a number of area community development organizations have used façade improvement programs to battle blight and spur neighborhood economic development.
Midtown Detroit Inc. (MDI) has been operating a façade improvement program for 10 years "based on the premise that exterior improvements will stimulate additional private investment in the buildings and the surrounding area, and attract additional customers, thereby resulting in additional downtown economic opportunities."
"The façade program is something that, as we're working with new and existing businesses in the area, we mention as something that we can provide them to enhance their property," says Elise Fields, a senior community planner with MDI who runs the program collaboratively with Sue Mosey, MDI's president. Fields says the program has covered everything from simple signage, such as vinyl window graphics, to full-blown signage and entire renovations of a building's front façade.
"Initially the program started out along the Woodward corridor," says Fields, "but we have expanded that to include the larger Midtown district, which includes New Center. We will also be launching a Woodbridge façade matching grant program this year."

Unveiling its freshly minted visage in December 2014, Star Liquor on Woodward Avenue became the most recently completed project in the program. New Center's Café Con Leche Nord and Midtown's Addison Eatery are in the works with anticipated signage and other improvements by spring. Previous projects include Detroit Future City, Be Nice Yoga, Great Lakes Coffee, Marcus Market, and many others.
The program is a 50/50 matching grant of up to $50,000 supported by the Hudson-Webber Foundation. Depending on funding budgets and project needs, MDI is able to assist anywhere from 10-15 projects each year, making it one of the more robust programs of its kind in the city.
Along 8 Mile
Along the city's northern border, a façade improvement program similar to MDI's targets both city and suburban businesses. The program is overseen by the Eight Mile Boulevard Association (8MBA), an organization that views the 8 Mile corridor as an opportunity to connect the 13 municipalities that share its border. The program was first implemented in 2008 using funds from 8MBA's general ledger, but has since grown thanks to foundation support – $15,000 from Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan and $25,000 from MSHDA in 2014, and a $100,000 HUD Community Development Block Grant for Detroit facades in 2015.
Generally, the program works with businesses that are planning renovations or additions to their existing building and incentivizes exterior improvements that meet 8MBA's goals for the corridor, such as landscaping, façade repair and improvements, signage, and lighting.
Jordan Twardy, 8MBA's executive director, says many of the suggested improvements through the program do not cost the owner more money, but add visual interest to the corridor. For instance, when Advantage Health Center executed improvements in 2014, instead of painting their block walls beige as planned, they were able to use the same paint budget to highlight the architectural elements of the façade with a subtle pattern. Tawdry notes that after the project was completed, he noticed other businesses with the same diamond block pattern executing similar improvements, unprompted, along the corridor.
"There's this idea that blight is contagious; well so is pride," says Twardy. "This initiative helps instill pride."

The Fresh Fish House on 8 Mile Road, which received an 8MBA facade improvement grant
Southwest Detroit
In recent years, a number of programs around the city have been working on implementing lower cost improvements in commercial corridors that spur pride and highlight commercial areas in need of more sustained investment.
In 2015, the Southwest Detroit Business Association's façade improvement program will include improvements to Taqueria El Rey, an institution known for its roast chicken and a barrel charcoal grill that is visible from West Vernor Highway. Upgrades to the storefront will include new signage and a refreshed paint scheme, but the iconic grill will remain.
East Jefferson
In 2012, the Jefferson East Business Association (JEBA) hosted a handful of pop-up concepts that ran concurrent with Jazzin of Jefferson, an annual festival that was celebrating its 10th anniversary at the time. The response was positive, so the following year JEBA partnered with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to host a month-long pop-up business series called June on Jefferson. For this, they reached out to local entrepreneurs and artists to implement simple, temporary façade improvements to storefronts near the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Chalmers.
One of the partnering organizations was Facelift Detroit, a nonprofit organization focused on providing design and consulting services for commercial and civic improvement projects, specifically façade enhancements and small business development. Facelift Detroit volunteered to construct the 'WHO IS JEFF CHALMERS?' signage that hung at the corner of Jefferson and Chalmers, which was a highly visible identifying feature of the event, yet one that didn't come at a high price to organizers.
"We basically took an existing brand and created an art piece," says Facelift founder Mark Klimkowski. "It was just treated plywood that we painted and cutout with jigsaws. It was an easy and inexpensive method."
After the event, Jefferson East Inc. (JEI) approached Facelift Detroit for a plan and visualizations of a piece of property along Fox Creek behind Marshall's Bar. "We did a conceptual design for what we're calling the Fox Creek Corridor, which is the area behind Marshall's Bar that has water access to the creek," says Klimkowski. "We proposed façade improvements, the greening of that alleyway, and a bridge over the creek to a pocket park and canoe launch. We later got funding to build picnic tables for behind Marshall's."
West Village
For the Villages Community Development Corporation, the emphasis has been to attract new businesses to the area, so economic development efforts have needed to think beyond the façade to be effective. The Villages received a $75,000 Kresge Foundation grant in 2011 to develop a walkable, retail-dense neighborhood strategy.
Executive Director Brian Hurtienne then partnered with the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation's (DEGC) REVOLVE Program to raise another $70,000 to test the demand for ground level retail along Agnes between Van Dyke and Parker using a pop-up retail concept.  Proving there was a high-demand for retail came quickly, and the money was used, along with investments made by the owners of West Village Manor Apartments and the Parkstone Apartments, to make façade and white box tenant improvements for a late 2013 opening season.
With four new permanent businesses – Craftwork, Detroit Vegan Soul, Red Hook Coffee, and Tarot and Tea – solidly anchoring Agnes, momentum in the area is shifting to other nearby retail spots, like the newly added Parker Street Market in April 2014 and the much anticipated Sister Pie in 2015.
But relying on financial support from foundations alone has proven unsustainable and project funding for economic development in the neighborhood beyond Agnes have been depleted. Hurtienne and the Villages are currently seeking to augment foundation funding with public funding options, as well as more accessible bank financing, to help spur more retail growth in the neighborhood. Hurtienne believes the area is ready for a more diverse and long-term funding strategy to continue its growth.

Amy Swift is a Detroit-based freelance writer and the principal of Building Hugger. Follow her on Twitter @buildinghugger.

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.