Symbolic barrier between Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park poised to fall
An intersection dividing Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park that has been a flashpoint of contention is expected to open to two-way vehicle traffic again.
Detroit officials have reached a tentative agreement with Grosse Pointe Park officials to reopen Kercheval at Wayburn to two-way travel and develop areas of the border in both cities.
The agreement comes five years after the suburb completely blocked the border with farmers market barns, and later, limited vehicle access between the two cities. The move by the affluent, mostly white community was seen as antagonistic toward the predominantly black city with nearly half of its residents in the bordering ZIP code below the poverty level.
Both cities have drafted a memorandum of understanding that would open Kercheval to two-way traffic before Aug. 1. Additional development and streetscape work is planned at borders between the two cities on Mack and on Jefferson. The Grosse Pointe Park City Council voted to pass the agreement Monday night. Detroit City Council is expected to vote on the agreement Tuesday.
“The distinction between the communities will be seamless,” retired Grosse Pointe Park City Manager Dale Krajniak said of the plan for the Kercheval intersection. “It’s going to not only be a great improvement for the use of the site, it will provide an appearance that’s seamless between the two communities and that’s what both communities were trying to achieve.”
Detroit has been in discussion with Grosse Pointe Park about reopening the Kercheval intersection for about a year and a half, said Tom Lewand, Detroit's group executive for jobs and the economy.
“When there was a proposal to do additional development, we started to sit down and talk about what the development might look like and how it might go and the desire of both communities to reopen Kercheval to two-way traffic,” Lewand said.
Grosse Pointe Mayor Robert Denner said Monday night after the vote that the improvements will build a relationship with the city of Detroit.
“We’re creating opportunities for residents of Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park to spend more time together,” he said.
History of division
The reopening of Kercheval to two-way traffic follows years of division at that border.
Five years ago, Grosse Pointe Park erected three barns for a farmers market that blocked traffic to and from Detroit. After removing the barns months later, the city put in a one-way roundabout that allowed only one-way entry into Grosse Pointe Park and set out more than a dozen massive terra cotta planters that created a barrier.
At the time, Grosse Pointe Park officials said the pots would be temporary, as the two cities had entered an agreement to create a new gateway along Kercheval.
Division between Detroit and the Grosse Pointe communities goes back decades, said Peter Hammer, director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. There used to be a point system within real estate transactions designed to keep non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant families out, and that practice continued in private even after federal laws prohibited it, he said.
More recently, tensions rose as some questioned why the Grosse Pointe Public School System, which serves the Grosse Pointes and part of Harper Woods, would not consider opening the district to other communities even as it faces declining student population.
"It's going to take a whole lot more than a streetscape at Mack or two-way traffic at Kercheval to really get the kind of regional consciousness and reconciliation that the Metro area really needs to move forward economically as well as socially as a united body," Hammer said.
Hammer said that while connecting roads is important, public transportation and schools are other benchmarks for a unified community.
“We need to keep our eye out on the totality of circumstances and celebrate our victories,” he said. “Opening up Kercheval is a huge victory, but then ask ourselves what are we going to do about public transportation, what are we going to do about a united school system, what are we going to do about thinking this is a region economically that needs to be coming together if we’re all going to benefit.”
Grosse Pointe Park resident Frank Joyce has lived near the Kercheval border with Detroit for nearly 30 years. He said he’s happy to hear of plans to reopen the street to two-way travel. Joyce said he was among Grosse Pointe Park residents who protested the initial closing.
He said the closing sent an antagonistic and hostile message from Grosse Pointe Park. It is also an inconvenience for residents and delivery drivers. He notes that blockages were put up years ago along some residential streets. A drive along Alter Road shows gated barriers at Brooks and Goethe streets, and at Korte Avenue.
“Kercheval in a way was different than the other (closures) if for no other reason than it was closing a commercial thoroughfare as opposed to a residential street, and so both symbolically and for reasons of convenience of getting back and forth between the two cities sent a particularly powerful message,” Joyce said. “It was on the wrong side of history. We should be tearing down barriers, not building them up.”
One catalyst to open the border is the estimated $16 million mixed-use development plan the powerful Cotton family of Grosse Pointe Park has in the works for the area. The family has development rights at the disputed intersection on Kercheval between Alter and Wayburn, Detroit official Lewand said.
A representative for the Cotton family did not return requests seeking comment.
The proposed development site sits at the northwest corner of Kercheval and Wayburn, according to a rendering from the city of Detroit. Two houses to the north were recently torn down for proposed parking. Parking is also proposed on parcels south of Kercheval. Shaw’s Books (which straddles both cities) and Fusion Fitness Studio in Grosse Pointe Park would remain, according to the plan.
Lewand said the developers anticipate a planned building will house shops, offices and apartments. About 85% of the building will be grounded in Detroit.
Lewand said that once the building is constructed, the Cotton family wants to put in a European plaza and add more planters.
“They’re very supportive of Mayor Duggan, very supportive of Grosse Pointe Park where they live, and they’ve been a real catalyst to open up the borders,” he said.
The proposed design for Kercheval between Alter Road and Wayburn shows the addition of trees along the sidewalk, and bike lanes in each direction. There will be traffic lanes in each direction and a parking lane on the south.
“I think the effort on Kercheval, once that development is completed, you’re going to see a continuation,” Grosse Pointe Park City Manager Krajniak said. “I think that will be a jump-start to further enhance development along Kercheval all the up to through the Chrysler plant. I think that will take a little bit of time, but I think that’s a big step in that direction that’s going to help propel improvements on that side as well.”
On a recent day, Joe Romano was doing work outside of his wife’s business — Best Way Pack and Send — at the corner of Kercheval and Wayburn, near the roundabout and one-way entrance into the city. The couple recently moved the business from a storefront further east on Kercheval in the Park. Romano, a Detroit resident, said he’s glad to hear the street will reopen to two-way traffic again.
"It will bring more people in," he said. "We're getting more and more business from Detroit."
Performing arts center
Improvements are planned for two other locations bordering Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park.
Along Alter near Mack, Detroit is working with Grosse Pointe Park to create a streetscape with identical light posts and tree plantings. The cost will be about $120,000, with Grosse Pointe Park providing $60,000 in private donations to Detroit for the effort. That work will begin as early as late summer.
On Jefferson, a 40,000-square-foot nonprofit performing arts center is planned on a Grosse Pointe Park site for both communities to use. The Park owns the land at 15003 Jefferson, which is longer used as a Detroit Department of Transportation bus turnaround.
The plan is to sell the land to the Grosse Pointe Park-based Urban Renewal Initiative Foundation for $300,000. A. Paul Schaap, a philanthropist, retired Wayne State University chemistry professor and founder of Lumigen, is president of the foundation.
In exchange for the sale, Grosse Pointe Park has agreed to widen Jefferson west of Lakepointe Street to better allow DDOT buses to turn around. Grosse Pointe Park officials have agreed to make restrooms in the nearby City Hall open to bus drivers.
Construction on the A. Paul and Carol C. Schaap Center for the Performing Arts could start as early as late fall and will take a year and a half to construct, Krajniak said. The estimated cost for the project is $18 million to $19 million.
“There are very specific plans to make that welcoming for Detroiters,” Lewand said. “They’d like to have Mosaic (Youth) Theatre group perform there on a regular basis. The Schaap family has been a sponsor of (Detroit Merit Charter Academy ) right at Alter Road. They plan to have those students involved in the performing arts center as well."