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Hazel Park — A city once known for its thoroughbred racetrack wants to draw a crowd again.

The small Oakland County community of Hazel Park lost its central business district to Interstate 75 more than 50 years ago and has long desired to get one back. Another blow came last year when the Hazel Park Raceway closed after nearly 70 years.

Now, city officials and developers want to slim down a thoroughfare near popular restaurants, reduce traffic speeds and widen sidewalks to bring back a sense of community by encouraging walking and biking.

Hazel Park officials hope the plan that will reduce traffic lanes on John R Road along with an upcoming mixed-use development will help create a downtown area for the city.

It’s a strategy that has proven successful for other nearby communities, most notably Ferndale, City Manager Ed Klobucher said.

Klobucher said the effort here will “create a more walkable community and encourage motorists to notice the businesses in Hazel Park.”

The 2.8-square-mile city of Hazel Park lost its central business district in the mid-1960s with the construction of Interstate 75. City officials later built a shopping center at the corner of Nine Mile and John R, but it couldn’t replicate the traditional downtown business district.

So crews this month began work on a $3.2 million streetscape plan that will reduce much of John R from four lanes to three as well as widen sidewalks. Work is expected to be complete by the end of the year. Plans also call for adding parking and bike lanes.

The work comes as the city updates its master plan, which officials say they hope to complete by the end of the year. It will replace a plan last updated in 2000, which included the now-defunct Hazel Park Raceway, which closed last year.

The site at Dequindre and 10 Mile will house three buildings for an industrial park, Tri-County Commerce Center. The first building houses an Amazon distribution center, Bridgewater Interiors and LG Electronics. A second building is under construction, and a third is planned to sit on what remained of the diminishing racetrack complex prior to its complete closure last year.

As Hazel Park does its road construction on John R, a developer is planning a mixed-use building for the site of a long-vacant CVS store at 23722 John R. It sits across the street from two of the city’s most notable and newer restaurants, Mabel Gray and Latido at Joebar.

The road will be reduced to two lanes in front of the new development, near Woodwood Heights Boulevard, said Jeff Campbell, community development director for Hazel Park.

“The idea is that it will be the slowest through here so people can stop,” he said. “This will sort of be the anchor of what might be a downtown.”

Communities typically consider road diets to reduce speeds and increase safety for motorist and pedestrians, said Kevin Vettraino, manager of economic and community vitality for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. It’s also an option for communities that want to create a downtown.

“A lot of cases where we’re seeing communities look at road diets is in the places where they’d like to see increased pedestrian activity,” he said. “So oftentimes they’re being considered or implemented in walkable downtowns.” 

Vettraino said communities near Hazel Park have seen success in reducing travel lanes.

“What that does is widen the sidewalk for pedestrians to walk as well as it makes the crossing of the road generally a shorter distance,” he said. “You’re crossing without worrying about that extra travel lane.”

City officials are anticipating the arrival of the not-yet-named, four-story development that will replace the old CVS and Video Mania building. For more than a decade, the building sat as an empty eyesore. The owners paid the property taxes and, when prompted with fines and letters, cleaned up the property, Campbell said.

“You had two box stores that were basically vacant and basically they did the bare minimum paying the taxes,” he said.

Because of CVS covenants barring a purchaser from selling similar items to what the chain carries, it limited the businesses that would able to make use of the property, Campbell said.

According to the city, the new owners, developers Lucky Ranger LLC, have plans for retail on the first floor and 33 apartment units ranging from studios to two bedrooms. There will be angled parking in front. The project is expected to be complete by late 2020.

“We’re glad that it’s been sold and these folks have a plan, and it’s a good plan,” Klobucher said. “I think it will fit well with our main strip on John R. ... There is nothing similar to this in Hazel Park.”

Mike Lang, a representative for Lucky Ranger LLC, declined to comment on the project.

Architects for the development are Birmingham firm Ron and Roman LLC. Roman Bonislawski, co-owner of Ron and Roman, says the development will include a retail and restaurant component.

“We are pre-planning the opportunity for two food-related uses in there,” he said. “It won’t be chains. We’re developing the retail to be more neighborhood driven, and that would go for the restaurants also.

"And there’s so many great chefs and restaurants appearing all around. And we’re involved with so many of them, we’re not stressed about finding the right user for it. We know we’ll find the right user for it.”

Lucky Ranger LLC recently received approval for a height variance from the city’s zoning board of appeals. It will raise the height of the building from 40 feet to 52 feet to hide mechanical elements, such as air conditioning. The city is waiting for the final plans for the development and for the developer to pull permits.

“It will enhance our downtown. It will really improve the appearance of the whole area,” Klobucher said. “That one really old CVS has really been a blight. … I think it’s held back our revitalization in that area.”

One of the city's first steps in developing its master plan was surveying the residents. 

In February, Hazel Park kicked off its master plan and parks and recreation plan. It was followed by three days of workshops in March. 

Among the nearly 300 responses of mostly homeowners, a majority said they found it important the city have an identified downtown, the appearance of a commercial business strip and a variety of shops.

The majority also found importance in improving non-motorized transportation, such as bike lanes and safe walking conditions.

Patrick Sullivan, owner of Sullivan's Continental Bike Shop on John R, said bike lanes are good if done right. Bicyclists and motorists should be able to understand the lane markings, he said.

“It’s always a good thing when there’s room for bicycles and cars,” he said. “It’s been something that bike shops have been advocating for several years, and it’s slow to come.”

James Rigato, owner of Mabel Gray across the street from the former CVS and also a resident, is  looking forward to the new development.

“It’s a huge space that’s been decaying for the last 12-14 years,” he said. “It’s been a complete burden on the city to have this giant piece of blight, especially right across what they want to be their restaurant district.

"It’s a bit piece of land in town that needs to be utilized and now I’m very excited it’s going to become a development.”

The road diet will contribute to the area's walkability, Rigato said. He also owns the Doug’s Delight ice cream shop on John R, a walking destination for residents.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “The problem with the walkability now is the fact that people use this as an artery. There’s way too many semis. There’s way too many speeding vehicles.

"The decibels standing on the street is miserable. … People don’t treat John R like they’re going through a neighborhood.”

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN

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