Fans of Detroit's Avenue of Fashion rally to help businesses during construction

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Detroit — Many businesses on the Livernois "Avenue of Fashion" say a city improvement plan has descended into a painful test of survival.

A $17 million construction project that began in May to widen the sidewalks, add bike lanes and improve the street on a 1.5 mile stretch of Livernois Avenue is taking a deep toll on businesses in this northwest community. The strip has been one big construction zone since spring. Parking has been severely reduced. And pedestrians often need to walk blocks to get to a place where they are able to cross the street. 

Avenue of Fashion is the pilot program in Mayor Mike Duggan's $125 million plan aimed at supporting local small businesses by revamping the infrastructure of commercial corridors in various neighborhoods. Construction on Livernois is taking place between Eight Mile Road and Margareta Street, but many contend the payoff for many small businesses on Livernois has not happened yet. 

"It's killing us," said Dolphin Michal, president of the Avenue of Fashion Business Association, as he carried a weed-whacker Friday morning and surveyed the road crews on Livernois and Chesterfield. He was headed toward the alley to clear some weeds because alleys now serve as both the sidewalk and main road. 

"I have had stores telling me for months now they have lost 40 to 60 percent of their business," Michael said, offering examples: a local pizzeria went from generating $1,000 a day in revenue to around $100, and the popular Kuzzo's Chicken and Waffles restaurant decided to close until November for renovations and wait out the construction. 

"I worry not everyone is going to be able to ride out the tough part to see the payoff," Michael said.

The $17 million construction project that began in May will widen the sidewalks, add bike lanes, and improve the street on a 1.5 mile stretch of Livernois Avenue called the Avenue of Fashion.  But extended construction is taking a deep toll on businesses.

The owners of Good Times, a new restaurant and bar that planned a June debut, say they have been forced to delay their opening because the road and sidewalk construction blocked access to their building. That slowed their own construction plans. Good Times owners LaDonna and Derrick Reynolds say they have invested $70,000 in the new business.

"We want to stay positive, and, we really do believe in the neighborhood and the city," LaDonna Reynolds said, as she cleaned the unused restaurant tables from the construction dust that blows in from the street.  "It's very frustrating. It just seems like the city has a hard time communicating with the community." 

It's about to get tougher. Starting in mid-August, parking on both sides of Livernois will be eliminated for at least one month as road crews hope to catch up after 24 days of rain in May, as well as deal with more extensive road repairs than originally planned. The goal is to complete everything by November 2020, said Caitlin Malloy-Marcon, deputy director of the city's Department of Public Works.

The scope of the Livernois construction project is far more "intense" than the other 19 projects planned for the other commercial corridors, Malloy-Marcon added. The Livernois project went from a renovation to a "reconstruction" due to the unexpected work need to the concrete base of the road as well as some "utility issues."

Pedestrians use caution as they cross Livernois at Chesterfield Friday, often needing to walk blocks to get to a place where they are able to cross the street.

There have been plenty of meetings between city officials and the community, she said.

"There's certainly always lessons to be learned," Malloy-Marcon said. "The way we communicated the issue of signage is something we have been trying to work on."

She was referring to signs that say businesses remain open during the construction period. She also noted that many city departments are now working on providing assistance, from potential loans to more area parking. 

The widened sidewalk will enable businesses to have outdoor seating, and the new sidewalk itself will have decorative brass inlays that tell the history of the avenue, city officials say. The bike lane will be elevated from the street.

Still,some business owners said parking will be an issue because Livernois will be one lane in each direction.

Paula Gonzales, a senior project manager in the mayor's office, sets up signs signaling businesses are open along the Avenue of Fashion on Friday.

Community members and the city are beginning to rally. The Detroit Economic Growth Corp. is exploring ways to provide low-interest loans and potential tax breaks to help businesses weather the down times. In addition, the city is helping set up five "Livernois Soup" events, which will raise money for  the businesses.

The first Livernois Soup is planned Aug. 22. The city has set up temporary public parking lots in five different spots on Livernois that will provide a total of 150 parking spaces 

A "cash mob" is planned Friday night, hoping to attract hundreds to shop. It's a set up for the Saturday's Ave on the Jazz event. The city also will provide free shuttles from the parking lot to various spots of the festival. The day of free music usually draws thousands and is a big boost for businesses.

"If we get half of what we usually get, I think most people would be okay with that,"  Michael said. "That's the state we are in right now."

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN