How Clawson is making a quiet comeback with food, retail and a nod to history

When Mary Liz Curtin and her husband Stephen opened retail mecca Leon and Lulu a decade ago, they felt a little lonely in downtown Clawson.

“There was Pizza Hut, a hairdresser, a used car lot, a Chinese restaurant, a Burger King and a porno shop,” recalls Curtin with a chuckle.

But things were about to change.

That same year,

 Black Lotus Brewery opened its doors, and things began to liven up in Clawson. Foot traffic increased, and new businesses followed. Today, Clawson boasts a thriving restaurant scene with older stalwarts like Noble Fish, Old Port Inn and the Clawson Grill serving up food alongside newcomers Atomic Chicken, Mojave Cantina and Old Detroit Burger Bar.

“It’s no longer a sleepy little town, and the people who are opening businesses here are enthusiastic and energetic,” Susie Stec, Clawson’s Economic Development Coordinator, explains over lunch at Clawson Grill. Stec says there are “maybe half a dozen properties” available in the downtown area. She points out that the Grill’s facade was recently completely redone, and right next door is the brand new business, Clawson Jewelers.

Clawson’s downtown is comprised of just a few blocks, but it’s full of unique destinations including Wunderground, one of only a few magic shops in the state of Michigan; Warp 9 Comics; the inimitable Leon and Lulu, and dining options that run the gamut from Vietnamese to Italian. And as Clawson’s residents and businesses work to ensure a stable and successful future, they’re doing so by honoring and incorporating the city’s past.

The oldest building in downtown Clawson dates to around 1915, and few were built in the 1920s, including those called home by Black Lotus Brewery and Da Nang Vietnamese Restaurant. Most others were constructed in the 1940s and 50s.

Leon and Lulu was once a roller skating rink. A careful look around the building reveals remnants of the building’s pastincluding the floor and concession standhelp to give the space a unique ambiance. Curtin says she “can’t imagine being in another building.” 

And Leon and Lulu is expanding into the building next door, which used to be a theater. The space is becoming The Show at Leon and Lulu, complete with a historically accurate marquee. Curtin says the building will serve as additional retail space and a new bakery-cafe.

Rehabbing spaces in downtown Clawson has required ingenuity. Black Lotus Brewery, which celebrates its tenth birthday this year, is in a building that was originally a drug store and later became a carpet and plumbing fixtures store. The owners of Woodpile BBQ, which just opened in 2015, had to get imaginative when transforming their building on the site of a former A&W built in 1957.

Downtown Development Authority Director Joan Horton is a Clawson native and remembers visiting the city’s downtown, including the drugstore and the A&W, when she was young.

“It was a place where you came to shop and see people,” recalls Horton, “but then like a lot of towns, the malls came and changed everything.”

Policies by the Michigan Department of Transportation in the 1970s aided in the decline of Clawson, as they did in so many other traditional downtowns across the state. Road projects cut through walkable towns, making them less pedestrian-friendly.  They also made it easier for people to get to the malls and forget about businesses in their own neighborhoods.

The decline and stagnation in downtown Clawson persisted through much of the 1980s and 1990s. However, in the last decade or so, the pendulum of consumer preference has swung back toward mom and pop-owned businesses, and many entrepreneurs are taking note.

“Six or seven years ago, we started seeing people,” says Horton. “Before that, there was no one walking around. But now everyone is sitting on a patio. If you’re walking the dog, pushing the kids, you go downtown, and that’s how it used to be.”

Horton credits the nonprofit National Main Street Center and Main Street Oakland County for aiding in the turnaround of many once-struggling downtown areas, including Clawson. The programs focus on design, organization, economic vitality and promotion to breathe life into failing downtowns and spur entrepreneurship.

Plans for the future

Last year, the Clawson Planning Commission adopted a new Downtown Master Plan, which takes into account the city’s history and aims to add greenery pedestrian areas. The previous Master Plan required that new construction had to be built up to the sidewalk with no respect to what the rest of the block looked like, and allowed for homes around the city’s downtown to be torn down to make room for new commercial development.

”Residents didn’t want that and they made that very clear, so the new plan says those homes around downtown can be used as an office or a salon, but it still has to be a home,” Horton explains.

The city of Clawson adopted a Complete Streets resolution in 2010, embracing the idea that every road should respect all users and all abilities.

“When you look at planning roads, you should consider the old, the young, pedestrians, drivers, the handicapped and cyclists,” says Horton. Even though it isn’t possible to do everything on every road, Horton says it’s very important that cities try to get as close to that ideal as possible.

Since completing the installation of several pedestrian islands on 14 Mile in Clawson’s downtown in last year, Horton says many drivers are slowing down and creating a safer environment for pedestrians.  Now the challenge is a parking shortage in the city’s downtown. In the past when there weren’t as many restaurants and businesses, it wasn’t a problem, but now that’s changed. Parking in Clawson is free—a major draw for those who are all too used to emptying their change purse for an afternoon in nearby Ferndale or Royal Oak.

Fiscal recovery

Implementing the city’s plans will require healthy city finances, and that’s an area Clawson is working on.

In the tough years around the collapse of the housing market, Clawson’s city manager and finance director Mark Pollock says that cities like Clawson and Berkley were hit especially hard because the majority of their tax base is residential. Cities with a significant commercial base, like Troy, were better able to weather the storm when residential markets tanked.

Pollock says the city is in “pretty good shape” financially these days, and is working to address some lingering debt. Progress is due in large part to the reduction in pay agreed to by Clawson employees back in 2008. Pollock says the move was a way to avoid laying people off during the lean years when the housing bubble popped and the city’s tax revenue wasn’t meeting its annual expenditure.

When Pollock, a Warren native who now calls Clawson home, started working for the city in 2000, there were 62 full-time employees. That number has shrunk down to 47 with some permanent part-timers filling in the gaps for previous full-time employees. For the last five years, Clawson City Hall and the Department of Public Works has closed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in exchange for a ten percent reduction in employee pay.

“We are surviving, but we are all wearing a lot of hats,” he says. Still, the city’s commercial tax base has recovered at a rate better than expected, and the average home price is back up to somewhere between $110,000 and $120,000.

Both Pollock and Clawson Mayor Penny Luebs say that as long as things continue as they are now, the future of Clawson looks bright.

“People who live in Clawson tend to stay in Clawson,” says Luebs, “they may move away, but often times they come back, or children move back to Clawson and purchase their parent’s home. It’s a generational city.”

This piece is part of our City Dive series in which we go deep to find out what’s next in the cities and towns in Metro Detroit. Read more in the series here.