It sits empty, but not forgotten. Neighborhood locals and business leaders have big dreams for “Vernor Crossing,” the former southwest Detroit Department of Public Works yard at 6370 Vernor Highway near Livernois Avenue.
Led by the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA), research projects a multi-million-dollar makeover of the seven-acre site could transform it from eyesore to thriving oasis. If the SDBA’s proposal to secure a major retail anchor and rebuild the vacant space into a mercado-style and cultural center succeeds, the development could generate unlimited payoffs in neighborhood profits, employment and tourism for many years to come. (See lead picture.)
As a mixed-use community anchor, the complex would signal Hispanic and multi-ethnic pride in an area with a 100-year history of attracting industrious immigrants. Vernor Crossing would also boost economic activity for a base of 100,000 residents and provide incubator space for several thousand Detroiters to expand home-based businesses, says Kathy Wendler, SDBA president.
“In terms of economic development, it’s not only the places that are there (at the future development), but there are also the places people would visit while they’re in the area,” she says.
SDBA envisions 60,000 square feet of retail space and at least 20,000 square feet of designated areas for food services and production, artists, craftsmen, and meeting rooms in a complex that draws patrons who would easily spill out into nearby Mexicantown and West Vernor’s shops and bakeries.
Vernor Crossing has been endorsed by the Michigan Municipal League, which chose SDBA’s proposal as one of eight selected statewide for its PlacePlans project in 2014. The project supports the design of efforts that promote economic development and walkable districts like Southwest Detroit.
SDBA has long wanted to support home-based entrepreneurs, who sew, bake, paint and provide other professional services to the community. Vernor Crossing would be an ideal space to help many set up shop, Wendler says. Particularly given Southwest Detroit’s status as an area where various national heritages are preserved, the development would showcase a distinct array of customs and skills that have sustained the area, she adds.
Authentic, ethnic eateries and markets that cater to buyers of specialty ingredients are already big attractions, and Vernor Crossing would boost traffic, according to the SDBA.
“People come in from Toledo, Inkster, Saginaw, Pontiac, and all over,” says Theresa Zajac, vice president.
SDBA has a vested interest in the property, including hiring Urban Land Institute to conduct a $120,000 study of its potential use. The organization has long had Vernor Crossing in its crosshairs, communicating to the City of Detroit its interest in acquiring the space and receiving a development agreement from former Emergency Manager Kevin Orr about four years ago. A series of changes in the administration, and challenges in getting safe, legal access to the site, have delayed further evaluation and assessment.
Maurice Cox, director of planning and development at the City of Detroit, is aware of SDBA’s proposal for Vernor Crossing and says the city wants to partner in the organization’s vision.
“I think it is arguably the most important redevelopment site in the southwest corridor, so we want to make sure it honors some of the collective aspirations of the residents and property owners there,” says Cox.
The building has been vacant for about 10 years, and has undergone the first stage of environmental cleanup, mitigating potential dangerous contamination and hazards to the surrounding community, he says. Cox reformed the planning department and is better prepared to evaluate Vernor Crossing proposals like SDBA’s, which pre-dates his hiring last year, he says.
Cox plans to meet with SDBA officials during the first quarter of 2017 to discuss “what kinds of new ideas might emerge,” based on their proposal and also stemming from an effort he set in motion to attract international architecture experts’ eyes to the site.
At no cost to the city, Cox says the planning department successfully pitched Vernor Crossing as a location for speculative design in this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale in Italy. An exhibition, “The Architectural Imagination” will open in the U.S. Pavilion of the Italian showcase followed by presentations that will be shared with the Southwest Detroit community next year and locally exhibited.
“What we’re going to get out of that is a real, fresh look at what is possible on that site,” says Cox.
“My interest was in opening up a broader conversation with the community about what’s possible,” he says of the Biennale interpretation. “They happen to be pretty extraordinary designers.”
But even more than just beautifying the site through restoration, SDBA’s Wendler says putting Vernor Crossing to proper use would fulfill some basic community needs.
“Help us put some retail on that site, so we don’t have to drive down Eureka Road to Meijer,” she says.
With goals similar to SDBA’s Vernor Crossing initiative, such as helping home-based entrepreneurs expand, Southwest Solutions spearheaded Vista Partnership. The program’s goal is to reinvigorate a 20-block area including Hubbard-Richard, Hubbard Farms, and Corktown with arts, culture and resident-driven visions. Vista Partnership has already bought the old St. Anthony’s Church on Vernor, holding events like a 2015 holiday fest and Zumba classes there.
Wendler says the Vernor Crossing vision and Vista complement each other in a goal beneficial to the larger Southwest Detroit community.
“The real question is, ‘How do you work in an area where the market has already been triggered?’” says Wendler. “It’s really about addressing infrastructure and trying to recruit tenants to the area.”
The SDBA has already interviewed 60 neighborhood stakeholders who’ve expressed support for the redevelopment or direct interest in using the space, says Sajac.
“We talk about a win-win,” she adds. “This really is one.”
With Southwest Detroit’s legacy and reputation as Motown’s mini-melting pot, there’s another key provision Vernor Crossing can offer in preserving locally observed, global traditions.
“There’s the cultural component,” says Zajac. “People want a place where they can celebrate.
Rico Razo, Detroit’s District 6 manager, representing Southwest Detroit, helped organize a charette with the community for Vernor Crossing earlier this year. Part of a Southwest Detroit study underway examines how neighborhood redevelopment can help further increase residents access to grocery stores, general retail outlets, and community facilities like SDBA envisions, he says.
Razo expressed confidence in SDBA and its record of achievement in the city. “Southwest Detroit Business Association is running that whole section of Vernor and we want to add to it.”
– Top picture from Southwest Detroit Business Association
– Other pictures: Paul Engstrom