Big changes ahead for downtown west Dearborn

Posted on July 5, 2016

Could west Dearborn be the region’s next hot downtown?

After years of false starts and curiously vacant storefronts, Dearborn’s west downtown is experiencing a rush of momentum and could be poised for a big resurgence.

Trendy new restaurants, bars and microbreweries have started filling some of the vacancies that line busy Michigan Avenue and more are scheduled to open — along with projects for new apartments aimed at young professionals and a five-story Hampton Inn.

Yet the area’s greatest development prospect involves this spring’s purchase of nearly two whole downtown blocks by the real estate arm of Dearborn’s biggest employer, Ford.

Development sources say that Ford Land Development Co. is looking to tear down many of the existing one- and two-story buildings on its newly acquired blocks — a large number of them are already vacant — and replace the structures with new retail and office buildings that could be filled with 600 to 650 Ford employees.

The demolition phase could begin as early as October, according to a source who has seen the development proposals.

This expanding mix of restaurants, bars, offices and new residences could give Dearborn a more contiguous, walkable west downtown, similar to the successful and widely popular downtowns in Royal Oak and Ferndale.

“Downtown Dearborn is going to be that next downtown that everybody is talking about,” said Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of the West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority.

West downtown merchants are already salivating over the prospect of hundreds of Ford employees arriving in the neighborhood.

“Within a year or two we’ll have a good mix of bars and restaurants that’s really going to create a destination spot,” said Sam Abbas, who last fall opened the Brome Burgers & Shakes restaurant at 22062 Michigan Ave., across from the Ford blocks in a former jewelry store.

One historic structure that will likely escape Ford’s wrecking ball is the old Wagner Hotel at the corner of Michigan and Monroe. Ford is looking to preserve the building and its historic facade, including the distinctive turret, and may even add four new floors to the building, according to Sheppard-Decius.

“This is a game-changer for any downtown,” she said of Ford’s two-block redevelopment plans.

All of this development comes as Ford undertakes a decade-long overhaul of its Dearborn headquarters and research and development campus. The automaker is also looking to put as many as 2,000 employees into the former Lord & Taylor department store at Fairlane Town Center on a rotational basis, a development source said.

For its part, Ford Land says it is not yet ready to unveil the full details of its plans for west downtown or Fairlane mall.

“We want to create an environment — both on our campus as well as in this area with our downtown — where young people are going to want to come and work and potentially to live,” said Donna Inch, Ford Land’s chairman and CEO.

Asked about the potential preservation and expansion of the old 1896 Wagner Hotel, Inch said the company is seriously evaluating that possibility.

“We want it to be used in a very modern way, but we’re very interested in historic preservation,” she said.

Even with the shortage of officially announced details, excitement is building in downtown for Ford’s arrival.

“We want those Ford employees during their lunch hour to come enjoy the downtown,” said city councilman Tom Tafalski. “We want them to come after work and enjoy it, and eventually we’d love them to come and raise a family here and have a close commute.”

Dearborn’s west downtown — about 3 miles from the city’s east downtown — has seen several redevelopment pushes through the years, with mixed results.

A much-heralded project begin in 2003 to redevelop a former Jacobson’s store site produced new condos, two new city-owned parking decks and a pair of Michigan Avenue buildings known as West Village Commons. However, the project failed to deliver two planned seven-story buildings that were supposed to go between the parking decks and contain commercial space and a hotel.

More recently, some storefronts along Michigan Avenue have had trouble keeping tenants, despite their prominent locations.

Those in the business community attribute many of the vacancies to previous landlords, including Hakim Fakhoury, whose west downtown properties went into receivership amid a business dispute. Businessman Michael Hamame eventually acquired some of those properties.

“We strategically targeted these properties because we recognize the potential in west Dearborn,” Hamame said in an interview last week. “It has all the variables to become a very successful downtown: it has the office traffic generators, it has the very high density and it has the geographic location.”

Hamame owns West Village Commons as well as the nearby building with a Buffalo Wild Wings and Panera Cares Cafe. This month a new Bar Louie is scheduled to open in West Village Commons and Hamame is developing a 42-unit loft project in the commons’ upper floors. The one-bedroom lofts could rent for $1,100 to $1,400 a month, he said.

“With the new residences and with Ford coming in, this is what you need to have a successful downtown,” Hamame said.

Hamame previously owned another nearby building that was a Bally fitness club. He sold that building, which is currently being rebuilt into a future 96-room Hampton Inn with ground-floor retail space.

Hamame also sold several of the storefronts that Ford Land compiled for its future two-block development. Hamame said he initially intended to redevelop one of those blocks, “but we recognized it was a better opportunity for the downtown and for us to be able to sell those properties to Ford.”

Opposite Ford’s Michigan Avenue blocks, several more vacant buildings will soon be filled by a new steakhouse, sweet shop and an upscale salon. The steakhouse and bar, to be called Fusion 41, is owned restaurateur Kasey Chammout and going into the former Dearborn Music spot at the corner of Michigan and Monroe, a building that originally was a bank.

The Cannoli Pastry shop will be on the ground floor of a neighboring building that dates to 1833. The upstairs will house The Aesthetics Room, a planned salon.

For downtown’s current merchants, the city’s decision in late 2014 to stop charging for parking in west downtown surface lots and parking structures helped gain and retain customers. Meter enforcement was strict and parking tickets were $20 for an expired meter, a deterrent for some people to visit.

“They were vultures out there and would be on top of cars that would have 1 or 2 minutes left,” said Arturo Gonzalez, manager of Don Yeyo Cigar Factory, which used to pay its regular customers’ parking expenses. “Ever since they got rid of the paid parking, business got better. We notice there is a lot more foot traffic.”

To make downtown even more visitor friendly, planners are considering future options such as more prominent crosswalks, reducing the size of traffic lanes on Michigan Avenue and starting a bike-share program.

Sheppard-Decius previously spent 15 years with the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority before taking the job in west Dearborn. Downtown Ferndale’s vacancy rate fell from a high 30% to low single digits during her tenure there.

Will Dearborn make similar leaps?

“We look at our neighbors like Ferndale and Detroit who are revitalizing their downtowns as great models,” she said. “But every downtown is different, and we want to encapsulate what this community offers and brings.”

Dearborn redevelopment facts:

  • 15 new businesses opened in 2015 in Dearborn’s west downtown.
  • Ford Land purchased nearly two whole west downtown blocks in May.
  • Ford is reportedly looking to raze buildings and construct new retail and office space
  • 600 to 650 Ford workers could be placed in the future office space.
  • 42 residential lofts could hit the market in late 2016 or early 2017.
  • 2,000 Ford employees could go into the former Lord & Taylor at Fairlane Town Center.