Resilient Neighborhoods: East Side cafe marks 5 years, innovative new spaces coming to Mack Ave.

Catherine Perkins, a Highland Park resident, made her first trip to The Commons, an East Side Detroit coffeehouse and laundromat on Mack Avenue, in early August. For her, the experience was definitely a pleasant surprise.

"I was blown away, because it just reminds me of a Midtown situation," says Perkins. "I'm in love with the cafe. And I've never seen a laundromat [set up] likeCatherine Perkins visits The Commons. this. I'm glad I checked it out and I will be back."

Perkins stopped by the facility with her niece Keesha Bracken, a frequent visitor and a fellow Highland Parker.

"I come here quite a lot," says Bracken. "I can wash [laundry], do some work on the internet, and get some coffee. It's clean, it's nice and it's safe."

The Commons is owned and operated by a local faith-based nonprofit called MACC Development that serves Detroit's 48214 zip code. Its laundry is full-service, while its cafe offers a wide range of coffees, sandwiches, and other treats and beverages. The 1,200-square-foot building also hosts MACC Development's offices and features space for community meetings.

While the quality of The Commons services does attract patrons from other areas like Perkins and Bracken, it's also a popular spot for local residents like Lakya Gamble, a college student who loves to grab breakfast at The Commons and also makes use of the laundromat. 

"It's comfortable coming here. You can talk to people. The employees are awesome," says Gamble.  "It brings lots to the community, because this wasn't here before."

Evolving and Multiplying Community Spaces

Now in its fifth year of operations. The Commons was designed with the input of local residents to bring amenities that had been lacking to the neighborhoods of Detroit's 48214 zip code. After two years of development, the combination cafe-laundromat opened its doors in 2018.

Since that time, The Commons has definitely undergone some changes. It now offers drop-off laundry. It's continued to evolve its menu options and has expanded the use of its community space, renting it out to residents, nonprofits, and other entities.

The space also had to respond to the challenges of the pandemic. Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, MACC Development had to close The Commons down for around eight months and experienced big changes in staff. In an effort to adapt, the cafe began using food delivery services like DoorDash, and the laundry started sponsoring free wash days for community members.

"We were kind of like those luxury items people really didn't see a [major] need for, so as the owner-operator of the commons, we pivoted our programming and utilized The Commons as a place to disperse food boxes, PPE, and other resources that many families needed," says Antoine Jackson, Director of MACC Development

Since that time, The Commons has reopened and become a popular gathering space again. And with the waning of COVID, MACC Development is not working to resume two other ambitious real estate projects that were put on hold due to COVID, an outdoor community space and a retail pop-up center.

Mack Lot conceptual rendering (Courtesy of MACC Development)The Mack Lot will be an outdoor community space that seeks to bring together people through a mix of arts, culture, food, and recreation. It will be located on a vacant 0.190-acre site on the south side of Mack Avenue between MACC Development and D&D Storage. Design plans for the space include a covered stage for performances, a long table for community get-togethers, a safe play area for children, accessible bike racks, a visually permeable fence, and a series of gardens with colorful plantings.

Early planning for the Mack Lot was provided by a Kresge Innovative Projects-Detroit (KIP-D) grant and talks are currently underway for additional funding. The outdoor community space is expected to open next summer.

"Through our engagement, we learned from the neighbors that they really wanted to see a space where they could come and gather and where kids could interact," says Jackson. "It'll encourage the revitalization that we're attempting to lead and do around Mack Avenue in creating this pedestrian-friendly corridor."

As for the retail space, it's going to be called the Create-A-Lot Pop-Up Retail Space. It will be constructed from prefabricated shipping containers and located directly across the street from The Commons on the North side of Mack Avenue. The space will offer retail opportunities to local vendors on a rotating basis. It's intended to bring new amenities to the Mack Avenue corridor while supporting the efforts of emerging entrepreneurs. Macc Avenue expects to break ground on the project next spring and wrap up construction by fall 2024.

The project is being supported through a collaborative effort between Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency (Wayne Metro) and the Rocket Community fund, known as the Create-a-lot program. The program seeks to develop vacant lots, create inviting place-based community spaces, and increase capacity-building support to community organizations.

Wayne Metro, which has a longstanding relationship with MACC Development, is supporting the effort logistically and serving as fiduciary for funding from the Rocket Community Fund. 
Joan Brophy, Wayne Metro's Fund Development Director is looking forward to seeing the project realized.

"We believe that MACC Development's Pop-Up Retail project will be a bustling, gathering place for residents, a catalyst for the additional development planned along the corridor, and a model for other neighborhood developments because it's driven by a strong community development corporation with the voice of residents who live in 48214," she says.

Laura Grannemann, Executive Director of the Rocket Community Fund is also optimistic about what the Create-A-Lot Pop-Up Retail Space will mean for Mack Avenue.

“We’re thrilled to partner with organizations like MACC Development as they reinvigorate underutilized areas to create community retail and public spaces where everyone is welcome and supported,” she says. “The Create A Lot program is a perfect example of what can be achieved when we put the needs of community first.”

Rendering for the Create-A-Lot Pop-Up Retail Space on Mack Avenue. (Image Courtesy of MACC Development)Moving forward on Mack Ave.

Damon Cannon has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with MACC Development. He's the general manager of D&D Storage and runs his own local moving company called Hired Muscle Detroit. Reflecting on the impact of The Commons over the last five years, he feels it's beenDamon Cannon (left) a real game changer in terms of bringing the local community together.

"I love the Commons being there," he says. "You have people who have seen the highest highs, people who have fallen and stumbled and got back up, and rebuilt their lives and all points in between. We're leaders in this community and [at The Commons] we have a chance to interact and socialize."

Noting there had been a negative perception of the neighborhood around The Commons, he also believes the new outdoor community space and retail pop-up complex are bound to have a positive impact on the Mack Avenue corridor.

"To have these businesses that are friendly to the eye that are welcoming and inviting. It changes the perception," says Cannon. "And any improvement to the corridor is going to provide opportunities to people to find gainful employment and to engage with others."

Betsy Palazzola, a local consultant who often frequents The Commons, is also enthusiastic about the upcoming community and retail spaces. She's watched MACC Development emerge over the last decade or so into what she feels is one of Detroit's "strongest" community development organizations. 

And from her vantage point, seeing the nonprofit move from handling housing management and emergency services to developing community spaces is a really big leap.
"It's just fun to see them expand and grow," says Palazzola. "I'm excited to hear that they're able to do something like that now, because those quality of life things, [that are] not just essential services, are important for a city."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said D&D Storage was owned by MACC Development. The storage company is independently owned. 

All photos by Steve Koss. 

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.
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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.