M-1 Rail crimps businesses along one block of Woodward

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The M-1 Rail offers the promise of more customers to businesses along its path — if they can survive until it opens.

Roby's Shoes owner Sharil Roby says there is not place to park in front of her store due to M-1 Rail construction on Woodward between Milwaukee and Grand Boulevard so business has drastically declined.

For several businesses on a block of Woodward Avenue between Milwaukee to Grand Boulevard, their survival is in question because the construction has eliminated off-street parking and reduced foot traffic. For others, they’ve turned the seeming hardship into a business strategy, offering curbside service to those who can’t make it into their shops.

At D-Town Freight, where customers can buy clothing, video games, shoes and furniture and a hardwood bedroom set in its window display cost $6,500, signs indicate April is its last month on Woodward at West Grand Boulevard.

And Dollar Ocean Plus across the street from D-Town Freight soon may follow.

The dollar store has been losing $20,000 a month for the last six months and has about $200,000 in inventory in the 10,000 square foot space, said owner Sinan Akkam, 25.

The store has no parking lot around back. Suppliers can’t get in, and the lack of parking means the convenience store isn’t so convenient. Akkam’s father, Sam, was even ticketed when he parked out front to handle store business.

“We’re thinking of closing the store down,” Sinan Akkam said. “It’s not worth it to stay in business anymore.”

Dollar Ocean store owner Sinan Akkam, 25, of Sterling Heights, says business has been down at least $20,000 a month for the last six months due to the M-1 RAIL construction project.

“Businesses Are Open During Construction,” reads the black banner on the guardrail outside the soon-to-open Atomic Chicken, on the corner of Woodward at Milwaukee in locations where Popeye’s chicken was located.

Sharil and Jeff Roby, owners of women’s shoe store Roby’s Shoes, have been on Woodward since 1979 after moving from Grand River and Oakman when the neighborhood became unsafe.

“We had to unlock the door to let people in,” Jeff Roby recalled of the old location. “There were kids outside with golf clubs and baseball bats; they might’ve been 10 years old, but they were tough.”

But Woodward has been good to them. They remember days when Sanders and Crowley’s and Winkleman’s were neighbors. But now, the lack of street parking has all but eliminated the foot traffic a shoe store relies on.

“Some days are $50 days,” Jeff Roby said. “Some days are $20 days.”

The Robys say if they weren’t also landlords of the properties south of them, all the way to the corner, they’d find it tough to support themselves with the shoe business.

“I didn’t think it (the M-1 Rail construction) would affect our business the way it has,” Sharil Roby said. Despite owning a parking lot around back on Milwaukee and advertising it on the storefront, “people don’t want to get out of their cars and park and walk.”

In January a little further south down Woodward at E. Palmer, Unique clothing and instrument store closed because the owner said M-1 Rail construction hurt his business and made parking difficult.

Dan Lijana, spokesman for M-1 Rail, said the agency’s community engagement efforts have worked with more than 60 retailers and restaurants along the corridor on a wide range of issues from parking accessibility to business support and construction schedules.

Lijana said the area between West Grand Boulevard and Milwaukee on Woodward permitted street parking on at least one side of the roadway from the start of construction through March 2016.

“One of the most important benefits of this project is the infrastructure enhancements from new lighting and traffic signals, to improvements to the water, power and other other utility lines underground, “ Lijana said in a statement.

“M-1 RAIL will continue to work closely with businesses, the community and other stakeholders throughout the corridor to mitigate the impact of construction,” he said.

But Sharil Roby of the shoe store said customers tell her they try to avoid the area.

The Robys have laid off five workers since the construction barrels started blocking parking spots.

“We have no reason to have people just sitting here,” Jeff Roby said. “We have one other guy who works Friday and Saturday only.”

One of the Robys' tenants is Darwin Smith, owner of DLS Pharmacy.

Smith, a pharmacist, relocated to Woodward from Grand River and saw the construction as a way to enhance his business.

Seeing Detroit as a city on the rise, Smith came to the city from his native Muskegon five years ago.

DLS Pharmacy owner Darwin L. Smith, 55, of Novi, fills a prescription. He said the block “is going to be a beautiful thing” when the rail line is finished.

He said the block “is going to be a beautiful thing” when the rail line is finished. In the meantime, he seeks to turn the mobility problems into an advantage by offering delivery service for his clients — the elderly, in particular.

Such creativity led Kristina Gazulli, owner of Motown Coney on the corner of Woodward and Milwaukee, to offer curb-side delivery to her customers.

Unlike the Robys, or Smith, or Atomic Chicken when it opens, Motown does not own the lot behind its building. Customers either have to pay $5 or park in the lot on Milwaukee, or call in their order. Then they call back upon arrival, stop briefly in front of the restaurant, and an employee brings out their food.

Because there is no temporary parking designated outside the eatery, Gazulli can’t advertise curb-side pickup, but it’s all she can do to make things convenient for customers.

On a recent midday visit to the strip, only two businesses had any customers: Praise Him Beauty, Barber & Nail Salon and the coney island.

“Core clientele, they’re going to come and get those good services,” said Cerhue Walker, 32. “See this cut he’s putting on me? I’m going to come back regardless.”

“Problem is,” said owner Miles Nelson, 30, “you don’t get those stray customers right now.”

Nelson said he’s behind on his bills and trying to stay afloat. The family business has been on Woodward since 2001, making its owners, along with the Robys, elder statesmen on the block.

“Milwaukee to the Boulevard, it’s like our own little community,” Nelson said. “We should try to improve the businesses that have been here the longest.”

Abdul-Hamid Vaid, owner of Hilal Books & Imports, came to Woodward about a 11/2 years ago after the building that housed his old store on Washington Boulevard was sold.

Vaid reported an 80 percent drop off in his business and he’s laid off one worker when the orange barrels took away parking spaces.

“When I was on Washington (Boulevard) and we had to shut down for a day to shoot a movie, the movie company would reimburse us,” Vaid said. “I call M-1 and they say there are no funds for that.”

Vaid said while his income has changed in recent months, his cost structure — rent, insurance, utilities, goods — has not. The worst of the impact has been in the last two months, he said.

“I thought about leaving a few times, yes,” Vaid said. “I’m still not sure, but I have thought about it. But it’s not easy to move.”

jdickson@detroitnews.com