A plan to make Vernor area pop in Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

For Kathy Wendler, it's long been a goal to transform a shuttered Detroit Public Works facility along Vernor into a retail center and community gathering space in the southwest Detroit neighborhood.

And thanks to a pilot project spearheaded by the Michigan Municipal League, the president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association says her efforts are now a step closer.

The southwest Detroit community was among eight statewide selected last month to participate in the league's PlacePlans project. Other PlacePlans recipients are Cadillac, Flint, Kalamazoo, Holland, Jackson, Marquette and Midland.

The joint effort, between the league and Michigan State University's School of Planning, Design and Construction, is led by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and aids communities in designing projects that promote economic development and walkable downtown districts.

For Detroit, the plan details "Vernor Crossing," a project that envisions retail, flexible plaza space for community events and a shared market space for neighborhood makers and entrepreneurs. The $17 million concept would be constructed in phases and situated on the seven-acre site at the corner of Vernor and Livernois.

Wendler said the association has been talking with the city and working on a plan for the former DPW yard over the last couple of years.

The group previously engaged the Urban Land Institute to conduct an analysis and determine the highest and best uses for the site. Working with the Municipal League, the association put together the multiple-phase plan.

"The PlacePlan defines a vision for the future of this key site in southwest Detroit," she said. "But maybe even more importantly, the plan will continue to build a sense of belonging to, and pride in, our community."

The effort engaged neighborhood residents, businesses and community organizations to gather ideas and feedback for the city-owned brownfield site.

Luke Forrest, program manager for the PlacePlans program, said a number of key development organizations including Detroit Future City, the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and city planning officials agree on the need to revitalize the district.

"They collectively directed us toward the southwest Detroit project," he said, adding the DPW facility is the centerpiece, but there are also plans to tackle traffic concerns and enhance uniformity and walkability along the Vernor corridor.

The plan lists short- and long-term strategies for improving safety and connections for pedestrians and bicycles around the intersection as well as aesthetic upgrades along Vernor. It also envisions infrastructure improvements and better connections between the adjacent neighborhoods and business district.

Forrest said a retail and residential market analysis is being launched to support future development. The results should be in this winter or spring, he said. The assessment, he said, will arm the local organizations with "fine-grained details on what's missing in that part of the city right now."

Wendler said the next step will be securing funding for projects in the plan.

Several sources of financing are being evaluated, including new market tax credits, brownfield tax credits and community development financial institutions, she said. The 86-page report also recommends grants and crowd-funding campaigns.

A key element of the project, she added, will be preserving and respecting the neighborhood's rich culture.

"We have a 100-plus year history of immigrant entrepreneurs," Wendler said. "We never want to lose our attractiveness as a magnet for immigrants. It's been our economic engine for a very long time ... our neighborhood was built by immigrants."

Some of the work, such as tidying up the site and removing blight and old vehicles, is already well underway. Wendler said it's critical that asbestos and other potential contaminants on the site are cleaned up.

A spokesman for the city said Detroit is open to potential redevelopment of the site once the environmental issues are addressed, but declined further comment.

Forrest says it will be up to the local leadership to carry out any plans, but he's optimistic.

"Everybody wants to see something happen," he said.

The other PlacePlans recipients around the state have similar aspirations.

In Cadillac, the plan provides for a flexible central public space, additional business frontage and options to make Lake Street more vehicle- and pedestrian-friendly.

Other projects include the Grand Traverse Greenway Plan in Flint, the Western Gateway project in Holland, the redesign of a municipal alley in Jackson, the Healthy Living Corridor Plan in Kalamazoo, the Baraga Avenue Enhancement Project in Marquette and redevelopment in downtown Midland.

The first round of PlacePlans work concluded in early 2013 and involved projects in Allegan, Alpena, Dearborn and Sault Ste. Marie.


Associated Press contributed.

Other PlacePlan projects


The Heritage Plaza concept for a lakeside block of downtown Cadillac envisions the site as a year-round destination and hub of downtown. The site could host seasonal events and provide an attractive connection between businesses and Lake Cadillac.


The Vernor Crossing site in Southwest Detroit would benefit from an attractive re-use of the property and better connections between the adjacent neighborhoods and business districts. The plan proposes a shared market space and a flexible public plaza.


The Grand Traverse Greenway is a three-mile long former CSX railroad line with the potential to be an inviting bike/walk trail. The design concept would provide a sense of connection between places along the trail and support recreational and safety needs.


The Western Gateway area around Holland's farmers market and civic center building has the potential to extend downtown, link it to the waterfront, and promote the area's food industry. The plan outlines a strategy for creating a "food innovation district."


The community sought to improve a four-block downtown alleyway between the farmers market and the transit center. Designs call for an attractive pedestrian connection that will support business along the route, as well as build on recent streetscape efforts.


An improved transportation network around Kalamazoo Valley Community College's new healthy living campus could balance the needs of biking, walking, transit and traffic options. The plan recommends a three-lane Portage Street and multiple transportation options for resident and visitors.


Baraga Avenue inhibits pedestrian activity due to an uninviting streetscape and breaks in the city's urban fabric. Plans call for better connections to neighborhoods and businesses by improving parks and parking, and encouraging new development.


Midland's farmers market has seen an explosion of both vendors and customers, prompting thoughts of creating a larger, more robust market.

Source: Michigan Municipal League