Detroit seeks to try out car-free streets

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Is Motor City ready to turn major streets into car-free zones on an occasional weekend?

Under the program, a 3.7-mile stretch of Vernor, above, and Michigan Avenue would be car-free to promote a street-fair atmosphere.

Detroit may find out this fall, when a program called Open Streets aims to temporarily convert a 3.7-mile stretch of Michigan Avenue and Vernor Highway — from Campus Martius to Corktown and Mexicantown — into a pedestrian-and-bike-only zone. If the city and state gives permission, the two major thoroughfares would be shut for several hours, from noon to 5 p.m., on two consecutive Sundays, organizers said. The planned dates are Sept. 25 and Oct. 2.

Michigan Avenue is the heart of Corktown’s dense scene of restaurants and bars. Vernor is the main business corridor for the Mexicantown community.

If the 100-plus cities around the world already participating in the idea are any guide, many Detroit residents and businesses will embrace the car-less streets to walk, jog and bike in the middle of road.

They inspire local businesses to set up sidewalk booths. Musicians play. Yoga and other exercise classes are held on the street along with other family-friendly activities. A street-fair atmosphere takes root, with the actual street and the community it supports as the focus.

“It’s really an opportunity to re-imagine our streets, to encourage residents to slow down for an afternoon and see their neighborhood from a different perspective,” said Lisa Nuszkowski, who works with the nonprofit Downtown Detroit Partnership, the current driver of Open Streets Detroit. The downtown partnership is a coalition of corporate, civic and philanthropic groups.

The group this week began to file for the city permits and other logistical approval needed to temporarily shut down Michigan and Vernor. City Council will have to approve the events. Because part of Michigan Avenue is in the state highway system, it also needs approval from Michigan Department of Transportation.

A spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan said city officials still need to review the permit applications.

“Generally speaking, the city is supportive of events that encourage safe and walkable spaces for families to enjoy,” said John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Duggan. “Because of the scope of the proposed street closures, several departments will have to closely review the permit application before the special events office makes its recommendation to City Council and MDOT.”

For months now, Nuszkowski has been hosting meetings in southwest Detroit and Corktown to gauge support from the communities.

“We can make this work; it sounds fabulous,” said Ron Cooley, president of the Corktown Business Association, at a recent meeting.

While some business owners are concerned they may lose money by shutting down the street to vehicles, economic surveys taken by other cities shows most local businesses have a slight increase in sales, according to 880 Cities, a Toronto group that is a consultant to the Detroit program.

If the planned trial run this fall is successful, organizers will want to temporarily shut down other major streets in other parts of Detroit next year.

The Open Streets idea is not new. It became popular in the 1970s in Bogotá, Colombia, where it’s called Ciclovía, Spanish for “cycleway.” For years, Wayne County has had a similar idea in Hines Park called “Saturday in the Park.” From May to September, a six-mile stretch of Hines Drive becomes pedestrian-and-bicycle only.

Recently, cities of all sizes have adapted the idea, according to the advocacy group Open Streets Project. In Minneapolis, the Open Streets program is in its third year. Last year, through eight different events, some 65,000 participated, organizers said.

“After the first year, support for the idea really took off,” said Alex Tsatsoulis, a communications coordinator for the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, one of the main organizers of the event. “The biggest costs are the barricades, the traffic patrols and police support for the closure of the route. The biggest payoff for businesses is the exposure. For residents, the payoff is really the event — the social activity and sense of community.”

Open Streets has already gotten some corporate and foundation funding, Nuszkowski said.

“We are just getting started in a lot of ways, though we have been working behind the scenes for a while,” she said. “Over all, so far, the feedback has been positive. I think many people sense this could be a unique, healthy celebration of neighborhoods.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN