'Resiliency': Gratiot/7 Mile residents hope for rebirth with city initiative

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sandra Turner-Handy has lived in her east-side neighborhood for more than 20 years and has watched the population dwindle and vacant properties spread.

“I’ve also seen the resiliency of those neighbors and residents that have stayed and continued to work within the neighborhood in order to increase the quality of life in the neighborhood,” said Turner-Handy, leader of the Denby Neighborhood Alliance.

Sandra Turner-Handy, of the Denby Neighborhood Alliance, outside closed storefronts where volunteers have painted inspiring words to "believe" business will return along Kelly Road at Mayfield Street in Detroit.

Buoyed by more than a dozen community groups in the area, the City of Detroit is revealing during a virtual meeting Thursday its Gratiot/7 Mile Framework plan. It’s the city’s 10th and final plan for its Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a city initiative revitalizing 10 areas with the help of philanthropic money. 

The plan for the 3.4-square-mile area includes addressing vacant property, bringing business to three micro districts and creating streetscapes. The work will be funded in part by $5 million that Fifth Third Bank pledged to the neighborhood through the fund.

The Gratiot and 7 Mile plan area, known as G7, is bounded by Houston-Whittier to the south, Eight Mile to the north, Schoenherr to the west and Kelly Road to the east. The area is mix of commercial and residential and has a high volume of vacant property and land compared with other parts of the city, officials said.

People pass a crumbling and abandoned theater, closed 20 years ago, along Kelly Road at Alma Street in Detroit on Wednesday, June 23, 2021.

The vacant and abandoned land bothers Turner-Handy. Along with other community members, she helped develop Commemoration Park in 2018, the site of a former school at Kelly and Alma. She stood at the park Wednesday, showing off its play structure, basketball hoops and green space, an example of what could be done with vacant land in the area.

“We have a large amount of vacant structures that should have been demolished years ago, but we also have really nice brick homes that can be rehabbed and renovated for families,” she said. “We’re supporting the city in that effort of revitalizing or renovating these vacant structures that are still sound but also we’re supporting the fact that we want to be a part of and sitting at the table as decisions are made around what we’re going to do with the vacant land around our community.”

Among the top priorities for neighborhood stabilization is to demolish unsalvageable city-owned structures and repurpose other city-owned structures, said Khalil Ligon, lead urban planner and G7 project manager for the city of Detroit. The work will include the demolition of 139 public-owned residential buildings this year under the city's Proposal N initiative, she said.

Piles of debris are seen outside the vacant Burbank School at 15600 E State Fair Avenue in Detroit on Wednesday, June 23, 2021 as community leaders hope the structure will be revitalized.

For mixed-use and multi-family redevelopment, the city plans to repurpose the former Burbank School at 15600 E. State Fair, which has been empty since 2006. It could potentially become senior housing and community space.

"Looking to preserve that, it was definitely one of the interests of the community; probably the second-highest after blight was looking how we might find a new use for this site," Ligon said. "We'll be looking to find development partners to do just that."

The city also plans to either create or enhance three micro districts for the community, areas that will draw businesses to join existing anchor locations in the area. The districts would be at Gratiot and Liberal, Houston-Whittier and Kelly, and Gratiot and Six Mile. Ligon said the city expects to issue requests for proposals for city-owned property starting with Gratiot and Liberal this year. 

Turner-Handy said the area could use additional businesses, including more sit-down restaurants or an ice cream shop. She said the community supports its independently owned grocery stores, auto repair shops, barber shops and hardware store.

Capers restaurant at 14726 Gratiot Avenue is a neighborhood jewel as the only sit-down and non-fast food restaurant in the area.

“We support these entities because they weathered the storm with us,” she said. “Hopefully they’ll continue to stay in the neighborhood. We also have a lot of vacant commercial structures that are just waiting on owners to come in. That’s our hope is that as we revitalize the community, those business owners will choose to set up shop in our community.”

At Capers, a steakhouse on Gratiot near Liberal, general manager Danny Staples said he’d like to see nearby vacant property addressed.

“That’s been one of my biggest concerns ... getting the neighborhood kept up so people still feel safe coming around here,” he said.

In business for nearly 40 years, Capers is an institution in the community, drawing locals and others looking for a sit-down restaurant and a good steak.

With the area targeted as a micro district, Staples said he’d welcome new business.

“More business brings us more business,” he said. “Even if it’s more restaurants. There’s plenty of customers to share.”

“Knowing that the city cares and that they’re working to build it up better, it would help a lot,” Staples added. “Looking clean and safe.”

Streetscape and mobility improvements are also on the way throughout the neighborhood. Plans include a street redesign for Gratiot Avenue in conjunction with the Michigan Department of Transportation, resurfacing Kelly Road from Hayes to Morang and installing speed cushions throughout the area to slow traffic.

"Essentially that will be a number of strategies to calm traffic," Ligon said. "They connect to all of our investment points: Heilmann (Memorial) Park, our micro districts, the major commercial corridors and thoroughfares throughout the plan area."

Jason Paulateer, senior vice president and community and economic development market manager for Fifth Third Bank, said the company saw the potential of earlier work within the city’s other Strategic Neighborhood Fund efforts.

The bank has a presence in the area with a branch on Gratiot at State Fair. 

“It’s one of the strongest branches in the neighborhood where people from the neighborhood actually bank there,” he said.

Paulateer said in addition to the dollars Fifth Third is investing in the community, the bank wants to help provide access to home ownership and grants for home improvement.

“We really wanted to be connected with the Strategic Neighborhood Fund,” he said. “We wanted to continue to deepen our partnership with the city and we really wanted to deepen our connection with the partners that we had already been working with.”

To participate: the presentation will be at 5:30 Thursday. Those interested in attending virtually can do so via Zoom at https://cityofdetroit.zoom.us/j/81227668675 or by phone at 312-626-6799. The meeting ID is 812 2766 8675.


Twitter: @CWilliams_DN