Resilient Neighborhoods: East Side nonprofit seeks to highlight businesses hurt by streetscaping

Detroit's streetscape program is aimed at reinvigorating commercial corridors across the city, but for business owners like Denise Moore, the construction involved has brought some short-term frustrations.

Moore is the owner of ZAB Cultural Collective, a co-working space and art gallery located on East Warren Avenue on the city's East Side. Streetscape construction, which kicked off in June, has led to a slowdown in business and even forced her to close down operations for a month and a half. 

"They tore up the very front of our building to work on the sidewalks," Moore says. "We couldn't even get in the building, so it was kind of bad."

Beyond that, she feels the project has also really cut down more broadly on local foot traffic.  

"There were big stretches of time when there was no one walking down the street at all," says Moore. "We're just now getting new adventurous people to walk down, but they're mostly the kids that go to the school down the street."

Denise Moore of ZAB Cultural Collective

The $8.2 million dollar streetscape project happening along East Warren Avenue is part of a public-private Strategic Neighborhood Fund plan to improve 10 neighborhood business corridors around the city. The plan aims to create resident-focused streets that assist and attract businesses and encourage community development. Launched in 2014, the Strategic Neighborhood Fund initiative is a public-private collaboration between the City of Detroit, Invest Detroit, and various nonprofit corporate partners that seek to support the revitalization of Detroit neighborhoods. 

Once completed, the East Warren streetscape, which will stretch between Cadieux Road and Three Mile Drive, will include new sidewalks and road pavement, bike lanes, crosswalks, pedestrian isles, on-street parking, enhanced transit stops, and other amenities. It will also feature a new $1.5 million parking plaza on Courville Street aimed at providing additional parking to support local businesses. It's expected to be completed by spring 2023.

A similar project took place in Detroit's Live6 neighborhood along Livernois Avenue, starting in 2019. Although it to was disruptive to local commerce, since its completion foot traffic has returned and several new businesses have been drawn to the commercial corridor there.

While the construction has been difficult for East Warren business owners like Moore, she's thankful to have an ally in a local nonprofit, the E. Warren Development Corp (EWDC), which has been working to raise the profile of businesses like hers. 

"They really have helped a lot of businesses on the corridor to coordinate information, so everyone can know what's going on. And they have a lot of resources for us also, so that's sort of it."

Founded three years ago, EWDC is dedicated to supporting and enhancing the East Warren commercial corridor between Mack Avenue and Alter Road and the adjacent neighborhoods of Morningside, East English Village, and Cornerstone Village. The nonprofit has its sights set on fostering 100% business occupancy along the thoroughfare with a diverse mix of establishments serving the local community. 

Some of the nonprofit's more well-known initiatives include the E. Warren Farmers Market, the digital literacy and marketing initiative Let's Get Digital E. Warren, and helping found the E. Warren Tool Library with the Motor City Grounds Crew. EWDC is also engaged in its own development efforts, like the redevelopment of a former Pizza Hut at 16835 East Warren Ave. that's being converted into a business incubation hub with commercial food kitchens, pop-up storefronts, and storage space, as well as space for the farmers market and a public commons area.

According to Joe Rashid, EWDC's executive director, the East Warren corridor hasJoe Rashid of EWDC (Steve Koss) been "fairly resilient" during the pandemic, something he attributes to the majority of businesses owning the properties where they are located. He acknowledges, however, that streetscaping has been challenging.

"There's never going to be a time where construction doesn't impact business, but we've tried to find creative ways to kind of mitigate that and support businesses in different ways," says Rashid.

In addition to facilitating communication between the city and local business owners about the project, EWDC has secured about $50,000 for streetscape mitigation funding from Invest Detroit in partnership with the City of Detroit and Blue Cross Blue Shield to help bolster local businesses. Of this $13,000 has been used for direct grants to seven local businesses. They were given a number of different options for how to use the grants, including professional development, events to get people in their doors, and lighting and signage improvements.

"To our surprise, all seven of them applied for facade improvements, so I think we've created a kind of a micro facade improvement program. where some put a new coat of paint on their building and others wanted signage," says Rashid. 

The businesses that have received grants include ZAB Cultural Collective, Rob's Deli, Glamorous Fashion Boutique, Cole's Castle Learning Center of the Performing Arts, House of BBQ, Laundry in the D, and the Warren Cafe.

Beyond these grants, EWDC has also been profiling local businesses in a series of different videos that are available via the nonprofit's website and YouTube page. The project evolved out of a relationship between EWDC, professional photographer Mark Rutherford, Joshua Arntson of Motor City Ground Crew, Andrew Iannacone, Librarian at the East Warren Tool Library, and Ulysses Newkirk, a local graphic designer and artist-in-residence at the tool library. The four men — who are all affiliated with E. Warren Community Studio, a sliding scale podcast and audio/visual production studio located at the tool library — originally worked together to produce a short video for a local clothing boutique called Tavira and Co. and have produced several more since July.

Mario Williams is the owner of Holy Moly Donut Shop.
Holy Moly Donut Shop, a one-stop breakfast and brunch diner at 17101 E Warren Ave., is one of the profiled businesses. But Mario Williams, the restaurant's owner, laments that the video hasn't really helped make up for the losses he's suffered during the streetscaping, which he says have cost him nearly half his average business.

"I got a lot of shares on it. But, no, the video hasn't helped people come in really," says Williams." It's just let them know I'm here and we're open."

Although he's determined to stay put, Williams would like to see some additional assistance from EWDC, like help facilitating grants or loans.

Moore is more gung ho about her promotional video, remarking that it does a great job of communicating what ZAB Cultural Collective is about to those who may not be familiar with the concept of a co-working space.

"I love it," she says. "I'm hoping it will let everyone know that we are still here and to come and venture out. Even though it's a little challenging to get to the businesses, there is a way."

In addition to Holy Moly Donut Shop, ZAB Cultural Collective, and Tavira and Co, EWDC has also created promotional videos for Warren Cafe and Be Her Detroit. The nonprofit wants to produce 10 to 15 more videos highlighting businesses along the corridor over the next several months. And is looking into getting additional grants for local business owners as well.

"We're not going to just stop with seven businesses giving a $2,000 grant. We need to be able to help support more businesses along the corridor," he says. "It's not just about new businesses coming, but it's about bolstering existing businesses and making sure that they are getting support as well."

Photos by Nick Hagen, except where otherwise noted.

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.