Detroit's Mexicantown, Avenue of Fashion endure construction pains
Detroit — The Bagley Streetscape project is sort of like the construction on the Avenue of Fashion, except that the concrete skewer through the heart of Mexicantown is smaller and less intrusive and people don't seem to hate it.
It's designed to make one of the city's most familiar strips of restaurants more festive. For now, and through at least late October, be forewarned that it's making access more difficult and dusty.
Businesses aren't wild about the interruption, but patience and perspective appear to be helping them through the process.
"This is nothing," pointed out James Galan of Los Galanes Restaurante, "compared to the two years we didn't have I-75."
Agreed, said Al Franco, across the street at La Gloria Bakery. "You've got to look at the bigger picture. It'll look nice when it's done."
Bottom line: If you want to make huevos rancheros, you have to break some eggs.
The Bagley Streetscape is a $5.4 million piece of an $80 million campaign from Mayor Mike Duggan to support small businesses on commercial corridors by improving infrastructure, a process that invariably begins with havoc.
Work began in July on the two-block stretch of Bagley between 24th Street and the I-75 service drive. As envisioned, it will have brick pavers for sidewalks, diamond-shaped scoring on the concrete street and an innovative curb-free, one-level design that will make for easy adaptation to a plaza for special celebrations.
By mid-September, the site had been reduced to a foot-deep dirt trench, from the doors of Xochimilco and Taqueria Lupita on the south side to Evie's Tamales and El PoPo Market on the north. No pavement, no sidewalks.
Workers recently had laid a concrete roadway and spread pathways of rocks in front of the storefronts. A city inspector had gone door-to-door, checking with merchants and restaurateurs on the best days and times to start working on entryways.
Eight miles north on Livernois, the Avenue of Fashion remained in disarray.
A significantly larger undertaking, that project covers 1.2 miles from Eight Mile south to Margareta Street on an avenue wide enough to start with four lanes of traffic and a median.
The median, despised by some of the business owners for hindering access, has been removed. A center turn lane will take its place, flanked by one traffic lane in each direction and sidewalks widened to 24 feet.
The $17 million redesign stumbled from the start, delayed by 24 rainy days in May. Road repairs turned out to be more extensive than expected, parking disappeared and pedestrians sometimes had to walk for blocks to find a place to dash across the street.
The area's leading success story, Kuzzo's Chicken & Waffles, gave up in frustration in July, closing a month ahead of a planned kitchen renovation and announcing a hiatus until November. Another restaurant, Good Times, scratched its June debut and only recently opened Fridays through Sundays.
Sympathetic community groups organized protests. The target date for completion was bumped back to November for the road and most of the sidewalks, and June 2020 for landscaping, benches and the rest of the walkways. Things grew so dire that the city created an emergency loan program for merchants.
Part of the sidewalk on the northbound side has been completed, and a pair of riders celebrated one recent night by racing their motor scooters up its smooth, wide surface. Across the street, access to businesses remains mostly dirt.
"They talk about how it's going to be better next year," said Michael Banks, who has owned the Professional Racquet Services tennis shop on Livernois for 35 years. "A couple of people aren't going to be here."
But things to seem to be improving, Banks said, and the merchants' association is still attacking the net.
It organized a sidewalk sale Saturday in September "with music and everything. But it didn't really pan out, because nobody could find a place to park."
Caitlin Marcon, deputy director of the complete streets division in the Department of Public Works, said the problems can be tied to both construction complications and garbled communications.
"You're always going to people who, even if you thought you had their support, didn't fully understand what you were saying," she said.
With the Bagley Streetscape, she said, the vision was more clear. A neighborhood study was specific to the point of community members choosing the yellows, purples and blues in the pavers.
Businesses were able to weigh in on when to start construction — or more important, when not to.
At the first meeting, "We say, 'No May. No,'" recalled Raquel Lozano of El Popo Market, halfway between 24th and 23rd streets.
With the school year ending in June, May is a field trip month, they explained. Cinco de Mayo, the cumin-and-cayenne St. Patrick's Day, fills the restaurants.
Since the heavy equipment rumbled into place three months ago, Lozano said, she has maintained 60 to 70 percent of her usual business, including her regulars. With no on-street parking and only rear access to some of the familiar lots, they know to use the back door.
"The other 30 to 40 percent are customers from the restaurants," she said. "They get something to eat, come in, buy pinatas or Mexican candies."
The city inspector who stopped by to research ideal times to block doorways told her that construction crews had found old trolley tracks and ties beneath the asphalt, which took extra time to rip out. Utilities weren't where they were supposed to be, and every rain squall was a setback.
Marcon said the greenery that will help differentiate street from sidewalk won't go in until spring when it's sensible to plant again. The single-level streetscape will also include decorative lighting and a new drainage system to replace standard curbs and gutters.
"We're hoping to wrap up the laying of concrete and pavers in November," she said — several weeks later than ideal.
September is a slow month anyway, said Galan, the second-generation owner of Los Galanes. But then comes Southwest Detroit Restaurant Week happening through Oct. 13, trailed by Dia de los Muertas, or Day of the Dead, from Oct. 31-Nov. 2.
"Any construction is never really good," said Franco, son of La Gloria's owner and the third generation to bake skull-shaped cookies for the Mexican equivalent of Halloween.
Peering out the shop's front windows at a full crew in fluorescent vests, he added, "especially when it's right in front."
Still, he said, as he reminded his mother, nothing could be as dismal as the I-75 project that ended last fall. And customers like Hector and Yolanda Vasquez of Macomb Township will find his front door even if they have to use parachutes.
Hector, a retired Chrysler worker, had started eating from a tray of pastries even before Franco totaled the bill.
"I grew up around here," he said. "Nothing is going to stop me from getting my Mexican sweet bread."
Vasquez said they make the 45-minute drive a few times a month, come infierno or high water.
Next, they were bound for Honey Bee Market, a few blocks beyond the freeway. Some spices, a few Mexican groceries, and never mind the construction: that's the whole enchilada.
Half a dozen streetscape projects are underway, according to Caitlin Marcon of the Department of Public Works, with four more in the design process.
For details and updates, visit detroitmi.gov/streetscapes. For questions, contact Complete Streets project manager Gustavo Serratos at firstname.lastname@example.org.